As Victoria edges closer to its 80 per cent vaccination target, multicultural groups have called on the state government to continue a key outreach program that’s been helping hard-to-reach communities get vaccinated.
- Bilingual health educators are concerned that support for community outreach is ending as Victoria nears its vaccination targets
- They said traditional government messaging doesn’t always reach diverse communities
- In-language outreach has proved effective in driving up the vaccination rate
Funding for the Workforce of Multilingual Health Educators project ran out this month.
The initiative by Gender Equity Victoria, the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, and Women’s Health Services has so far helped more than 1,800 migrant and refugee women in Victoria access health education and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Shweta Kawatra, one of the health educators on the project, said there was no other way to reach their clients.
“You’re not going to reach them through advertising or social media or press conferences; the only way you can reach them is deep level engagement by women from their own community — and that work is still a long way ahead.”
The initiative was allocated a $1.5 million Working for Victoria grant to hire 50 health educators over a period of six months.
The ABC understands the group has been encouraged by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions to seek funding from alternative departments, although no decision has been made yet.
“The women in these roles are doing incredible work within their own communities and we greatly appreciate the efforts of our culturally and linguistically diverse community leaders in driving vaccination rates and helping to keep the community safe,” a government spokesperson said in a statement.
Building trust to drive vaccination rates
Ms Kawatra said she and her team in Melbourne’s west went the extra mile to help migrant and refugee women get vaccinated.
They spent two months building trust with a group of conservative Urdu-speaking women in their own language on WhatsApp.
“During this engagement, we realised that none of those women were able to access vaccination, because they needed to access them in a culturally appropriate way,” Ms Kawatra said.
It was important for the women to have access to translators, female nurses, and a vaccination site in a private place, she added.
After speaking to the women’s religious leader, Ms Kawatra’s team organised a pop-up vaccination hub that met their needs at the women’s place of worship.
The Workforce of Multilingual Health Educators released a report last week that found 80 per cent of the clients interviewed were more likely to book a vaccination appointment as a result of the sessions.
Of those with employment, 41 per cent worked in essential services — and hence were more exposed to COVID-19.
The report also showed more than 90 per cent had experienced multiple hardships during the pandemic, including family separation, increased unpaid care, discrimination and financial stress.
Hesitation overcome by communication
Eman Al-Dasuqi, who is originally from Jordan, delivered sessions in Melbourne’s north, which has a large Arabic-speaking community.
“I saw attitudes changing,” she said.
After her sessions, Ms Al-Dasuqi said the women who participated shared photos on social media of themselves getting vaccinated.
But Ms Al-Dasuqi was frustrated that the program ended when she and her team were making gains within the community.
“The way we did our community outreach, we established a deep connection. It took time and trust,” she said.
Lavanya Varadharajan, who is originally from India, said she found the sessions with the health educators helpful.
She was already convinced to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but she said the session equipped her with accurate information to talk to hesitant members of her community.
“I attended the seminar because I wanted to know how we should motivate other people to go for the vaccination,” she said.
The Victorian government has not publicly released data on vaccination rate by ethnicity or country of birth, but anecdotal evidence suggests culturally and linguistically diverse communities may be dying of COVID-19 at higher rates.
Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria (ECCV) chair Eddie Micallef said the Workforce of Multilingual Health Educators and other programs like it need ongoing funding.
The ECCV also used Victorian government funding to recruit a community outreach team to support migrant communities during the pandemic.
“We need to build on this work with a longer term plan,” he said.
He said that when Victoria hits its vaccination target and opens up, the vaccination rate in migrant communities will likely be lower than 80 per cent.
“I think it’s ridiculous to leave sections of the community behind,” he said.
“They need a program that responds to their needs.”
Unvaccinated people will be left behind
In addition to the health risks of not being vaccinated, those who do not get the jab as Victoria continues to open up will find themselves with significantly less freedoms.
Premier Daniel Andrews said that in the move to a “vaccinated economy”, the state would “lock out people who are not vaccinated and can be”.
Essential workers in Victoria will be unable to work on site if they do not receive their first dose by October 15.
Tanja Kovac, the chief executive of Gender Equity Victoria, said migrant women wanted to get vaccinated, but many needed the help of the health educators to make bookings.
Others needed further information to get them over the line.
“You’ve got to take vaccinations and services into community, you’ve got to make sure that people who speak different languages can understand it properly,” she said.
She said investment in community outreach programs was far cheaper than the cost of treating people for COVID.
Now that funding from the Victorian government has run out, Ms Kovac said she was losing staff because she could not keep them on while she waited to see if more government funding comes in.
“We are losing the capacity, and we’re at this point we should be having surge capacity,” Ms Kovac said.
“If we’re concerned about public health, it’s worth the investment to make sure that this is sustained.”
Going beyond the 80 per cent target
Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the government should try to drive up the vaccination rate beyond 80 per cent to make up for gaps in certain areas and social groups.
“It is important to make sure that we don’t have these pockets where you have low vaccination, or at least that you’ve provided everything the community needs to make their own informed decisions about their vaccination status,” Dr Bennett said.
She said there were a range of different groups that would find themselves in the 20 per cent of people left unvaccinated when Victoria opens up.
Some may have little trust in government or organised health systems, while others might face language and cultural barriers.
“You’ve got very different messages for different groups, as you understand what their position is, what their understanding is, and what their trust is,” Dr Bennett said.
The government must continue to support community leaders, she said, to spread reliable information about vaccines and establish pop-up vaccination clinics in community safe spaces.
“You really have to do that on the ground work with community,” she said.