Latifa Haidary was working as a security guard at a regional Victorian COVID-19 vaccination hub when an elderly Afghan man walked in. Approaching staff members with a bewildered look on his face, he began asking a stream of questions in Hazaragi. But no-one could understand him until Ms Haidary, 22, stepped in and addressed him in the language. “I said, ‘Sir, do you know if you can fill in a form or not?'” Ms Haidary said.
Ms Haidary helped the man with his forms and guided him through the rest of the vaccination process. The next week he returned with a large group of friends, all of whom were eager to receive their COVID-19 shot. “He said, ‘Because you work here, we come here,'” Ms Haidary said.
“After that, Afghans came more and more — but before that, there was no-one.”
Vulnerable Victorians face vaccine barriers
That patient was just one of many vulnerable regional Victorians facing significant barriers to accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. Among them are members of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities and people experiencing homelessness. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services have also seen slow uptake of the jab among eligible community members.
But some regional Victorian groups are working with local health services to prevent people from falling through the cracks. One such group, the Ethnic Council of Shepparton, has now employed Ms Haidary as one of seven staff working at the local vaccination hub.
In addition to her security work, Ms Haidary now spends an extra two days a week at the centre offering guidance to the region’s large Afghan community.
Hesitancy an ongoing issue
Regional CALD and Aboriginal organisations have seen continued vaccination hesitancy in their communities. This intensified after the AstraZeneca vaccine was linked to a rare blood-clotting side effect in March.
But groups like the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative in the Goulburn Valley are working to rebuild trust. To date only 27 per cent of Rumbalara’s vulnerable over-50 population has received the first dose. Wamba Wamba and Jaara woman and health and wellbeing executive manager Shannon Drake said clinics saw “a huge drop-off” in community engagement since news of the risk was reported.
She said the co-op had been working on various strategies, including one-on-one GP consultations and group information sessions at Rumbalara Elders Facility. “Once they’ve been able to address all those concerns, most of the time the community has been happy to then be rebooked into the next clinic,” Ms Drake said.
The Ethnic Council of Shepparton is also working to get “more troops on the ground” by employing people from target communities to deliver COVID-19 health messaging. “They’ve got the trust and confidence of the communities,” Mr Hazelman said. “If we can get community leaders to be champions of the program, we’re 90 per cent of the way there to getting a good outcome.”
Homeless communities also affected
People experiencing homelessness are also facing barriers to receiving the vaccination. Catherine Jefferies is client services manager at BeyondHousing, which services north-east Victoria and the Goulburn Valley. She said clients often lacked the means to make bookings or had difficulty accessing personal identification or a Medicare card.
It could also be tough for them to access information on where to receive the vaccine, which in and of itself was not necessarily a priority. “Just having the capacity to even consider a vaccine is not at the forefront of their minds,” Ms Jefferies said.
But the path has been made smoother by “letters of proof” from the Victorian Government, which clients can now present in place of ID. BeyondHousing is also providing phones or making bookings for clients. Ms Jefferies said it was crucial people experiencing homelessness received the vaccine because they could be at greater risk of catching the virus.