A breakdown of trust and poor government communications left Melbourne’s ethnically diverse and lower-income suburbs ill-prepared as Covid-19 raged through their communities, according to peak community bodies.
Melbourne’s top five areas for Covid-19 cases in the second wave – Wyndham, Brimbank, Hume, Whittlesea and Melton – are among the city’s most culturally and linguistically diverse, as well as the most disadvantaged.
This contrasts sharply with the first wave, when Covid-19 was mainly confined to returned travellers and their contacts. Anthony Pym, a professor in translation studies at the University of Melbourne, referred to the first wave as a “rich person’s wave”.
The changed nature of how Covid-19 spread in Melbourne in the second wave required a shift in the state government’s communications strategy, Pym said, with a more targeted focus on culturally diverse communities and simpler messaging. But that didn’t happen at first.
‘It was a mess’
Pym said in the early frenzy of the second wave, there were simple mistakes in pamphlets in Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, where the reference to ‘outdoor gym’ was actually closer to ‘sports hall’.
“A lot of the texts in English are [already] hard for people to understand. So, one of the basic things that hasn’t been done as well is writing text so it’s very simple and easy to translate.”
The lack of multilingual communications was made most evident during the police lockdown of nine social housing towers in Melbourne’s inner north, where people living in the towers were relied upon for translation due to a lack of government translators.
“It was a mess, to put it bluntly,” Eddie Micallef, chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, told the Victorian parliament’s Covid-19 committee on Thursday. “The initial volunteers [in the towers] were very concerned about using people [who were] inadequately trained. And I think in some cases they were misused, and possibly abused.”
‘If you work for the government, you’re basically operating as a spy’
A key challenge has been the lack of trust for government among migrants who originate from countries where governments preyed on civilians.
“[Many migrants] come from countries where if you work for the government, you’re basically operating as a spy,” Pym said. “So there are all sorts of presuppositions about intermediaries – meaning translators, interpreters and official communication. They’re subject to more distrust among some communities, than others who have been in Australia for a long time.”
Another reason for the breakdown in communications has been the government’s preferred medium. While Daniel Andrews’ daily press conferences have become something of a lockdown ritual, the premier admitted last week that many people weren’t hearing his messages .
“Part of our challenge all the way along – whether it be culturally appropriate messaging, messaging groups who perhaps don’t necessarily engage with mainstream media the way we do – is trying to get to as many different parts of the community with positive, factual, motivating messages. That’s always tough,” Andrews said.
Many of those not hearing the government’s message could be among culturally diverse communities, which have demonstrated a preference for online and social media as primary sources for information, as opposed to mainstream media – where a lack of diversity has alienated multicultural communities.
Victorian government outreach efforts late to the party
More than two months into the second wave, the Victorian government is ramping up its communications efforts to reach a wider set of the community.
New ads were launched last week starring Magda Szubanski, Shane Jacobson and other celebrities, as well as more targeted initiatives to reach specific communities.
As part of a $14m package this month, the Victorian government included $2m funding for translation and interpreter services, and $5.5m to improve the distribution of those services.
But the revamped outreach efforts might be too little, too late, with the government now playing catch up. Micallef said the government did not consult culturally diverse communities in the early days of the second wave, which could have helped amplify public health messaging into the communities that most needed to hear it.
“I think if that had been done, a lot of issues the government faced down the road would have been responded to earlier,” he said.
“The government … did not tap into the expertise within those communities.”
Now statewide, government messages in several languages are running on radio, TV through SBS, billboards and online. As of this week, Andrews is running 34 sponsored ads on his Facebook page on Covid-19, including information about the curfews and the $450 payment made available for those who need to isolate after being tested.
There are also videos featuring healthcare workers in several different languages.
DHHS also has dozens of ads targeted by council area and information on Covid-19 on its website is in 56 languages.
But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to do it, Micallef said.
“There has to be a constant message right across all ethnic communities so they understand it,” he said.
Pym said the key to reaching multicultural communities is connecting with the younger generation.
Pym referred to a “re-narration process” where younger family members pick up the messaging in English and then share it with relatives in their native tongues. This is something Pym observed often in Melbourne’s diverse communities, adding that when the message doesn’t come from a family member, it is less trusted.
“People don’t know where it’s coming from. In some communities there are conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, where there are mistakes, and even quite minor innocent mistakes [in translations], they’re picked up, and that feeds into conspiracy theories.”
‘I never believed in conspiracy theories, but …’
With a lack of community trust in government and media, and a preference for online sources, the door was open for misinformation. Conspiracy theories during the Victorian second wave have acted as online filters preventing public health messages getting through to communities across Melbourne.
They’re not just limited to migrant communities and are often fostered deep in closed social media groups, such as Facebook, with tens of thousands of members.
This week, Victorian crossbench MPs were flooded with messages from some of these groups pushing for an end to the lockdown, as the premier prepares to submit a 12-month extension to Victoria’s state of emergency. Many of these groups are propagating that a state of emergency extension is akin to extending stage four lockdowns, despite Andrews saying otherwise.
“You represent us & we don’t agree to another 12 month lock down. #endthelockdown #opposetheprosposal,” one of the thousands of comments posted on Reason MP Fiona Patten’s Facebook page on Wednesday night stated.
Melbourne kitchen supplier Robert Mincone told Guardian Australia he doesn’t watch Australian TV news, instead relying on international broadcasts and information he reads online.
“I never used to be one to look into conspiracies and stuff, because a lot of that is a bit of a toss up really when you think about it,” he said.
“But when you consider all the stuff going on around the world … there’s gotta be something behind it.”
The 46-year-old said he believed the Andrews government was trying to suppress the people.
“Governments for thousands of years have been suppressing people. And it’s hard to get out of it,” he said.
Mincone said he follows the government restrictions in his workplace because “it’s the right thing to do” by his workers and customers, but it’s “playing the government’s game”.
“I mean, at the end of the day, if you want to live in this society, you just got to play the government’s game. They’re gonna suppress us and tell us to wash your hands and wear a mask and all that sort of stuff.”
A spokeswoman for DHHS did not say whether the state government had a strategy to combat online misinformation, except that it was “particularly dangerous at a time when we are trying to slow the spread of this highly infectious virus and save lives”.
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