Soon, where you were born and what languages you speak will be recorded both when you get a COVID-19 vaccine, or if you test positive to the virus.
- The data will help show the government if communities are avoiding getting vaccinated
- It will be collected in the same way gender and Indigenous background are recorded
- The government is still deciding whether it would release the information publicly
It is hoped the move will show the government if specific communities are avoiding getting the vaccine, or are being disproportionately affected by the virus.
Overseas, data has revealed large differences in who is getting the jab — with ethnic minorities in the US and UK less likely to get the vaccine.
Lucas de Toca, a senior bureaucrat leading the Department of Health’s COVID-19 response, said the vaccine data would initially be recorded in GP respiratory clinics.
“There was a strong push from community leaders and peak bodies to collect that data so local public health responses could be tailored if there was something missing, or there was a group underrepresented in the cases, or over represented.”
Experts have been pushing for data collection on ethnicity for virus tests and jabs, in the same way gender, Indigenous background and age are recorded.
The information will help officials see where there might be gaps in the public health response, so they can target resources, adjust tracing strategies and better engage community leaders.
“We can see … what the take up of the vaccine in different locations is and target specific areas that might require additional support,” Dr de Toca said.
But there are also concerns about whether, in the wrong hands, the information might be used to racially vilify groups.
Dr de Toca said the government had not decided yet if it would release the information publicly.
“There’s an ethical imperative that any data that is collected needs to have a use and needs to inform public health,” he said.
“Otherwise there’s a burden on the person to [hand over] that data and a burden on the service to collect something that is not used.
Epidemiologist Jocelyn Chan wants the data made available in real time to public health authorities, community leaders and health care providers.
She also said the data should be released more broadly, provided personal privacy is protected.
But she concedes that brings with it risks.
“Making this data available could result in social stigma directed at cultural and ethnic groups, especially if the reason for any disparities are not clearly explained,” Dr Chan said.
Disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities
COVID-19 has been shown to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, who are among those groups at a higher risk of becoming ill from coronavirus and passing it on without realising.
That is partly because they are more likely to have a chronic disease, while being less likely to engage in official public health messages.
The federal government has faced criticism for its handling of ethnic communities early in the pandemic, with experts fearing there had been a “missed opportunity” to protect at-risk groups.
Outbreaks in Melbourne during its second wave also happened in culturally diverse communities, with Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton ultimately acknowledging the state government had not always properly engaged with those groups.
There have also been bungled public health message translations, with the ABC also revealing the Department of Home Affairs used Google Translate to communicate with multicultural communities during the pandemic.
“[During the first wave] there were errors in translation and a failure to look to the strengths that are found with multicultural communities to make sure everyone was getting appropriate health messaging on their terms,” Labor’s Shadow Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles said.
“When it comes to vaccination issue, I think we’ve got to recognise there are communities within Australia that haven’t had the same access to health information and haven’t had the same access in particular to information about the vaccination rollout.”
But Dr De Toca said the government had learned lessons since the start of the pandemic.
“The pandemic response was an unprecedented effort in terms of mounting a whole of society response to a threat we haven’t had of this magnitude in a hundred years. So we’re continuously learning, week by week, on every aspect of the response,” he said.
What about misinformation?
Italian-Australian GP Antonio Di Dio sees many culturally and linguistically diverse Australians in Canberra, and said he has been presented with many false theories.
“People have been told the vaccine will cause cancer, that the vaccine will cause multiple sclerosis, that the vaccine will shorten their life, that the vaccine will give them reactions that will kill them, that the vaccine may be related to autism,” he said.
“All of these things are unproven.”
Dr De Toca said the government was working with community groups to stop the spread of misinformation through its Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group.
The group has had several roundtables with community and religious leaders, many of whom have raised concerns about the spread of conspiracy theories online.
Posts on Chinese social media platform WeChat have been spreading the false claim that mRNA vaccines like the Pfizer jab can integrate with a person’s DNA and transform recipients into “genetically modified humans”.
While rumours that vaccines contain traces of beef and pork, which are not eaten by Hindus and Muslims respectively, have also been circulating online.
After consulting with Muslim doctors and medical experts, the Australian National Imams Council issued a Fatwa, which is a ruling on a point of Islamic law, concluding that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines do not contain any prohibited substances.
Mary Patetsos, the chair of the peak multicultural body the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), said community leaders were a key part of combating fake news.
“Poor information, rumours, conspiratorial theories they’re out there — that’s why we’re working with Commonwealth government and state governments to make sure that community information is out there via community leaders and religious leaders.”