‘Prioritise migrant well-being’: experts on high COVID-19 death rate among ethnic minorities 

Experts Dr Nisha Khot and Dr Devaki Monani comment on the gaps in preventative healthcare for people born overseas

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The COVID-19 mortality report released last month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has revealed a dark disparity in the country’s healthcare. The report, which recorded 2,639 deaths until 31 Jan this year, found that the COVID death rate was three times higher in people born overseas than people who were born in Australia.

The report raises deep concerns considering nearly half (49%) of all Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent who was born overseas, according to the 2016 Census.

Melbourne’s Dr Nisha Khot, an obstetrician working at Royal Women’s Hospital and Western Health, told Indian Link she was aware of increased rates of COVID infection in migrants in her everyday experience but was shocked by the disparities in mortality rates among ethnic minority communities. 

“The infections also tended to be more severe in these communities,” she noted.

“Data from overseas (UK and USA) also showed these striking differences between infection rates based on race and ethnicity.”

She mentioned that people from minority communities are more likely to have poor health because of poor access to healthcare & poor preventative healthcare.

“The number of GPs per 1000 population in areas with higher minority ethnic populations is much lower than in non-minority populated areas. 

“[People from minority communities] are more likely to have obesity, hypertension, diabetes which puts them at higher risk of severe infection.”

She explained that health is determined by number of factors such as good quality healthy food, stable and safe housing without overcrowding, preventative messages that are culturally appropriate, access to secure employment, access to GPs and specialist healthcare.

“It saddened me to see that despite having the information on these disparities and time to prepare for mitigation, we still did not achieve comparable outcomes for ethnic minority communities,” the Board director for RANZCOG and the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria, said.

In fact, the report showed that people with a country of birth in the Middle East (about 5% of the overseas-born population) had a COVID death rate which was 10 times higher than those born in Australia.

READ ALSO: ‘Serving the community’: COVID testing in remote NSW

Dr Devaki Monani, lecturer in social work at Charles Darwin University, said she was not surprised by the findings in the ABS COVID mortality report. Her research into the report explains that for most migrants, irrespective of their ethnicity, economic participation in the workforce takes priority over well-being.

“This means their health is often neglected. Additionally, navigating the health care system is also problematic; public hospital wait times are enormous, and often people from migrant communities are time poor and tend to place their health on a back burner,” she said.

She added that COVID pandemic demonstrated a stark reality of time-poor working-class migrants such as security guards, aged care workers, nursing home workers.

“They were time-poor, unlike mainstream middle class who were afforded opportunities of working from home etc, due to the nature of their jobs. This meant that migrants have to mostly choose between going to the hospital or heading to work.”

It has become increasingly clear that Australia is dependent on a migrant workforce, and Dr Monani, an expert in comparative social policy, stressed the importance of early intervention around health literacy for migrants and the wider population.

“It is now imperative more than ever to prioritise migrant well-being and embed these aspects as part of their workplace. Workplaces of frontline workers need to prioritise health and well-being opportunities for migrants,” she said.

It has been widely reported that the reason so many from migrant and multicultural communities have contracted COVID and died is because of living in crowded and cramped conditions in densely populated areas. 

“However, this brings us back to the broader conversation about housing affordability in Australia. If Australia will continue to depend on a migrant workforce, then the liveability, health and well-being options for migrants also need to be considered in the overall workforce planning. A healthy migrant workforce will contribute toward a healthy nation,” Dr Monani said.

What about the government’s multicultural messaging of COVID related information towards ethnic minority communities? Did that have an impact on the prevention of infections?

“While translations are tricky, the vast majority of skilled migrants have medium levels of English if not high,” Dr Monani said. “Translations are in one way offloading the broader problem of engagement to deeming it to being an English language situation, whilst it is a little more complicated.”

“Here, bringing Government in the discourse is one side of the story. There is a broader problem around giving resources to multicultural services to manage the delivery of key messaging, rather than allocating that job to interpreters. 

“We need to acknowledge that broadly really no one was prepared for COVID-19. In this post-COVID era, we have a chance to make a difference in shaping the engagement around the multicultural context.”

READ ALSO: Isolating Indian families find relief in NGOs’ home-cooked meals 

Bageshri Savyasachi
Bageshri Savyasachi
Truth-telling, tree-hugging journalist.

What's On