Government and governance, National security, Health | Asia, The World

16 November 2020

Culturally and linguistically diverse communities are being left behind by coronavirus responses the world over, David Green, Justin Whitney, and Matthew Linley write.

As the coronavirus pandemic has raged throughout the world, there has been an array of government responses ranging from extended full lockdowns to more laissez faire approaches. While many governments have been scrambling to provide adequate messaging to their citizens, immigrant communities have often been overlooked until an infection cluster is identified. When this has happened, harsh lockdowns and negative commentary have been a common response.

There have been multiple examples demonstrating that culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities are susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks, and less able to cope with their consequences. This appears to have been the case for Melbourne, Australia, where a second wave of infections has been partially attributed to government failure in effectively engaging with CALD communities.

Not only did this failure exacerbate the asymmetric impacts associated with the pandemic, it also highlighted the critical functions that individuals from multicultural backgrounds have performed during the COVID-19 response. It was observed by the Victorian Chief Health Officer, for example, that for some of those individuals involved in hotel quarantine arrangements, linguistic and cultural barriers may have impeded understanding and acceptance of infection prevention and control measures.

Indeed, while the effectiveness of Australia’s response has been recognised around the world, government-driven messaging that has accompanied the relatively low levels of community transmission has often failed to address the nation’s ethnic diversity.

Given the risk of further contagion, the certainty of future emergencies impacting all segments of the community, and the growing acknowledgement that the entire community can play a role in coping with an emergency, it is imperative that governments continue to close this gap. One approach may be to examine how other nations engage in hazard awareness communication with their diverse communities.

As a part of a three-year project on household emergency preparedness for foreign nationals residing in Japan, we were able to identify several interesting gaps between how the government provided hazard awareness information to foreign residents, the patterns in which immigrant groups accessed such information, and how they prepared for emergencies.

More on this: The securitization of public health emergencies

While policymakers in Japan regularly look to traditional countries of immigration such as Australia when developing strategies to cater to their immigrant communities, our research provides some lessons from which Australia may also benefit, particularly regarding communicating with and preparing CALD communities for emergencies.

In analysing the ways in which immigrants obtained emergency information in Japan, our research suggested that while language may be a barrier, it is surprisingly minor.

Foreign residents seem to access information across a variety of fronts, including official government sources, home country sources, community contacts, the media, and the Internet.

Since much of Japan’s policy targeting foreign residents is premised on the assumption poor language comprehension is a key cause of vulnerability, the Japanese government focuses on producing and disseminating information that is translated into upwards of 10 languages.

Rather than access to translated materials and Japanese language proficiency, however, levels of household emergency preparedness may be tied to specific nationalities. The key takeaway from our study is that governments should not treat immigrant groups as a uniform cohort. Outreach activities should reflect not only linguistic diversity but also cultural diversity.

We recommend further studies of those individual-level factors that result in variation in preparedness across different groups. This should assist governments in better understanding reasons for their vulnerabilities, facilitating better targeting of hazard awareness communication.

More on this: The conversation we need to have

Provision of multilingual materials can help and should remain an area of focus. But it is not simply an absence of information that governments need to address. Rather, given the varying informational needs of ethnically diverse communities, governments must find a way of ensuring that a consistent message reaches the intended audiences.

The lingering nature of COVID-19 highlights the integral role that every part of the community can play in coping with a crisis and underlines the importance of making sure everyone is suitably informed. It is, therefore, crucial that governments review how they prioritise and tailor communications strategies within diverse communities.

While simply translating government proclamations into various languages may be insufficient in terms of outreach, door-to-door visitations, as some have suggested, are likely too labour intensive and potentially dangerous in the midst of a pandemic. Instead, a better approach may be to work with CALD community leaders to identify specific areas of both vulnerability and resilience and target outreach activities accordingly.

Such activities should not have to wait for a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and these efforts will no doubt yield benefits to the entire community when confronting future crises.

In sum, it is necessary not only to acknowledge differences between groups but also differences within them. It is essential to understand the social characteristics of CALD residents to first, identify which groups are the most vulnerable in a given crisis, and second, determine the best means for officials to disseminate important information to them.

In a perfect world these efforts at community engagement would already be well underway, but the COVID-19 pandemic presents policymakers with a stark reminder that ensuring everyone is making decisions based on consistent messaging is crucial to protecting the broader community. It also presents them with an opportunity to engage in the kind of outreach necessary to build stronger connections between government and CALD communities. Taking this opportunity will place all communities in a better position to approach future crises.

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