As Victoria approaches its 80 percent vaccination target, multicultural groups have called on the state government to continue a central outreach program that has helped hard-to-reach communities get vaccinated.
- Bilingual health educators are concerned that community support will end as Victoria approaches its vaccination targets
- They said traditional messages from the government do not always reach different communities
- Language search has proven effective in increasing the vaccination rate
Funding for the Workforce of Multilingual Health Educators project is running out this month.
The initiative of Gender Equity Victoria, the Multicultural Center for Women’s Health and Women’s Health Services has so far helped more than 1,800 women migrants and refugees in Victoria gain access to 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 customers.
“You are not going to reach them through advertising or social media or press conferences. The only way you can reach them is a deeply committed commitment from women from their own community – and that work is still a long way off.”
The initiative was awarded $ 1.5 million Working for Victoria Grants to employ 50 health educators over a six-month period.
ABC understands that 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 in their own community, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of our culturally and linguistically diverse community leaders to drive vaccination rates and help keep society safe,” a government spokesman said in a statement.
Building confidence in driving vaccination rates
Mrs 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 realized that none of these women were able to access vaccination because they needed to access them in a culturally appropriate way,” 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 with the female religious leader, Ms. Kawatra’s team organized a pop-up vaccination hub that met their needs at the women’s place of worship.
The workforce of multilingual health educators last week published a report showing that 80 percent of the interviewed clients were more likely to order a vaccination appointment as a result of the sessions.
Of those with employment, 41 percent worked in essential services — and were therefore more exposed to COVID-19.
The report also showed that more than 90 percent had experienced several hardships during the pandemic, including family separation, increased unpaid care, discrimination and financial stress.
Hesitation overcome by communication
Eman Al-Dasuqi, originally from Jordan, delivered sessions in North Melbourne, which has a large Arabic-speaking community.
“I saw attitudes change,” she said.
After her sessions, Al-Dasuqi said the women who participated shared photos on social media of themselves being vaccinated.
But Ms. Al-Dasuqi was frustrated that the program ended when she and her team achieved gains in 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 useful.
She was already convinced of being vaccinated against COVID-19, but she said the session provided her with accurate information to talk to hesitant members of her community.
“I attended the seminar because I wanted to know how to motivate other people to go for vaccination,” she said.
The Victorian government has not publicly released data on vaccination rates by ethnicity or country of birth, but anecdotal evidence suggests that culturally and linguistically diverse communities may die from COVID-19 at higher rates.
The President of the Ethnic Communities of Victoria (ECCV), Eddie Micallef, said the workforce of multilingual health educators and other programs like it needs ongoing funding.
ECCV also used Victorian state funding to recruit a community outreach team to support migrant communities during the pandemic.
“We need to build on this work with a long-term plan,” he said.
He said that when Victoria reaches its vaccination target and opens up, the vaccination rate in migrant communities is likely to be lower than 80 percent.
“I think it’s ridiculous to leave parts of society,” 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 fewer freedoms.
Prime Minister Daniel Andrews said that in the transition to a “vaccinated economy” the state would “block out people who are not vaccinated and can stay”.
Important workers in Victoria will not be able to work on site if they do not receive their first dose by 15 October.
Tanja Kovac, CEO of Gender Equity Victoria, said migrant women wanted to be vaccinated, but many needed help from health educators to make bookings.
Others needed additional information to get them across the line.
“You have to bring vaccinations and services into the community, you have to make sure that people who speak different languages can understand it properly,” she said.
She said investing 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, Kovac said she lost staff because she could not keep them while she waited to see if more government funding came.
“We are losing capacity and we are at this point, we should have an increase capacity,” Kovac said.
“If we are concerned about public health, it is worth the investment to ensure that this is maintained.”
Goes beyond the goal of 80 percent
Catherine Bennett, president of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the government should try to increase the vaccination rate beyond 80 percent to compensate for gaps in certain areas and social groups.
“It is important to ensure that we do not have these pockets where you have low vaccination, or at least that you have provided everything society needs to make their own informed decisions about their vaccination status,” said Dr. Bennett.
She said there were a number of different groups that would find themselves in the 20 per cent of people left unvaccinated when Victoria opens up.
Some may have little confidence in the government or organized health systems, while others may face language and cultural barriers.
“You have very different messages to different groups as you understand what their position is, what their understanding is, and what their trust is,” said Dr. Bennett.
The government must continue to support community leaders, she said, to disseminate reliable information about vaccines and establish pop-up vaccination clinics in locally safe areas.
“You really have to make it on-site work with the community,” she said.
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