How community leaders in Melbourne’s north helped drive down coronavirus outbreaks

Abu Hamzah

Experts say community leaders are key in curbing the coronavirus pandemic in the next few months

Combatting misinformation online and helping get health messages across language and cultural barriers have been major challenges

Engaging more culturally diverse communities could be a lesson learnt to avoid future outbreaks

“We were trying to calm the situation down,” Mr Hamzah told the ABC. “We talked them out of it. “Some people are in a state of denial, because there’s a lot of social media out there that denies that COVID even exists.”

While other Victorians’ Facebook feeds were filled with noisy stunts at police roadblocks and Bunnings stores, some young Muslims in Melbourne were seeing videos of a Perth-based imam urging them to go out and protest, along with other social media posts calling the virus a hoax.

Many imams and Muslim health professionals did not remain silent, fighting against misinformation and conspiracy theories on their social media accounts.

But Zuleyha Keskin, a senior lecturer in Islamic studies at Charles Sturt University, said anyone who spoke up against the misinformation found themselves being “bombarded, or being criticised”. “It got quite aggressive. It might have been the impact of the lockdown on people’s mental health. But a lot of people did jump onto the conspiracy theory bandwagon, for sure,” she said.

Mr Hamzah said it was a serious concern for his community. “When people were calling out for rallies and demonstrations, we knew that people were taking advantage of our youth,” he said.


Abu Hamzah
After Abu Hamzah met these young men who went to protest, they made a pledge not to get involved in any more protests.(Facebook: IISNA My Centre)

As the pandemic unfolded, Broadmeadows’s My Centre mosque and youth multicultural centre — with more than 2,500 congregation members — churned out videos in multiple languages, featuring community members who had contracted the virus to convince others it was real, including both Mr Hamzah’s sons and their wives.

“When it hits home, people recognise that this is real,” Mr Hamzah said.

“We clarified to people that it’s serious. If you love your family, get tested. If you love your work colleagues, go and be tested. I think people really took it seriously.”

Trust in politicians and media lacking

Last Saturday, Premier Daniel Andrews praised community leaders for their support in containing an outbreak across Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Debunking coronavirus myths and fears in Melbourne’s migrant communities has been an unsung success of the pandemic response — including this week, when thousands of people in Melbourne’s northern suburbs answered the call to get tested and isolate.

“We are getting no talk about hoaxes, no pushback at all,” Banyule Community Health CEO Mick Geary said. “People are understanding the health messages. They’re coming and getting tested. They just want to get on with it.” But it’s only happened after months of missteps and mistakes by health authorities in their attempts to communicate with culturally diverse communities that — in some cases — only made things worse.

“Conspiracy theories cut across all cultures, religions, colors,” Dr Keskin said.


Zuleyha Keskin, a senior lecturer in Islamic studies at Charles Sturt University
Researcher Zuleyha Keskin says community distrust of the Government and media has at times cast doubt on information about COVID-19.(Supplied)

Dr Keskin said the widespread embrace of conspiracy theories related to coronavirus had had a pronounced effect on strategies to curb its spread. “With something like coronavirus, information is key. And that information source has to be trusted,” she said. “Most of the information that was coming out was from politicians and the media. My concern is that there isn’t a very good relationship between Muslims and the media and politicians.

We’ve had bad experiences in the past.” And there were more to come throughout this crisis — beginning with the first outbreaks of the second wave in Melbourne’s outer suburbs — the homes for culturally diverse communites. Even before it began, an expert panel of doctors and politicians warned the Federal Government of a “missed opportunity” to protect migrant communities.

Communities felt disengaged

Police wearing face masks walk in front of a public housing block.
Many residents of the public housing towers in Melbourne said the strong police presence during the hard lockdown triggered trauma.(AAP: David Crosling)

Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton acknowledged that the Victorian Government had not always properly engaged with migrant communities.

“It’s our obligation as government to reach those people. It’s not their fault if we’re not going in with appropriate engagement,” he said.

Then came the lockdown in Melbourne’s public housing towers — which showed how unprepared the department was to deal with migrant communities at that time, according to Mohamed Mohideen, the president of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV). “If it had been left to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), it would have been a disaster,” he said, adding that the ICV runs regular meetings with health authorities.

“I think from the Government point of view, they went in like they were dealing with a bushfire crisis. But this was different. These people were not in a refuge, they were in their own homes.”


Mohammed Mohideen
Mohammed Mohideen says the Islamic Council of Victoria has run regular meetings with community leaders and health authorities since the beginning of pandemic.

The sense of disconnection from authorities was heightened by culturally tone-deaf incidents — like delivering pork sausages to Muslim familes. “There was a lot of fear. They were locked in, they were from refugee backgrounds,” Mr Mohideen said.

In July, the ICV warned against scapegoating the Muslim community, when some media reports linked new coronavirus clusters to Islamic Eid festival celebrations and the Government named another large cluster after the Al Taqwa Islamic college, which had 144 cases. “The infection outbreak was not really from the school,” Mr Mohideen said.

“In reality, most of the people who were infected were from the abattoir. Their kids would come to school, then get infected.

“We spoke to the Government, and said, ‘maybe you need to stop using the term Al Taqwa’. And that term then disappeared. “The same thing happened with the Afghan community. And Brett Sutton apologised. I think I think they’ve learned, they’ve changed, and I think it’s good.”

‘Heroic work in the fight of corona’

In August, the Victoria Government announced the creation of a CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) Communities Taskforce, a $14.3 million initiative aimed at providing culturally specific support and communication.

But for months, many culturally and linguistically diverse communities have taken initiative by doing the heavy lifting themselves. Sabaoth Art Ministry, a youth organisation in the Ethiopian community, for example, sent critical information about COVID-19 in Amharic language through a theatrical music video.


 Yonas Shefaraw
Yonas Shefaraw says the video he produced in Amharic is more effective in disseminating COVID-19 information to his community.(ABC News, Ron Ekkel)

The founder of the art group, Yonas Shefaraw, who is also a “biculture worker” with Cohealth community health centre, said even when COVID-19 information on the DHHS website was available in his language, the problem was how those messages were delivered to his community. A similar concern has also been raised by several other migrant community members, particularly those who were not born in Australia.

“Our culture, like many other cultures, is celebrated through music and art,” Mr Shefaraw said.

“The idea is to make the information more catchy for our community by putting a popular African song that is known across generations.”
Youtube COVID-19 song in Amharic languge produced by Ethiophian community In Melbourne’s northern suburbs, the next crucial moment will come next week — when thousands of people will be tested again to confirm they are clear of the virus.

“I think this last week has identified that there is another level of heroic work in the fight against corona,” Banyule Community Health’s Mick Geary said.

“It’s community leaders, school teachers, community health workers.

“Those trusted, respected voices are a key part of pushing the messages we’ve had to get out in the last few weeks, and may have to do for the next 12 months.” Now that Melbourne is lifting some COVID-19 restrictions, Mr Hamzah said he was “overwhelmed” with how his community had responded to COVID-19. He said through the My Centre multicultural centre, he would keep focusing on the youth by providing them support services.

“I believe they are the future of this beautiful country of Australia. So we really spend immense time with them to make sure that they are law-abiding citizens.”

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