Further challenges for new migrants and humanitarian entrants in COVID-19

By Andrew Reid

There is a concern that COVID-19 may exacerbate inequality towards vulnerable groups, including migrants and refugees. Here, I highlight a few from past experiences between 2006 – 2011 as a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) project and casework officer. My role included assisting and supporting Australian permanent residents within the first five years of arrival. This group included humanitarian entrants, family stream migrants with low English proficiency; and other selected visa subclasses. This group was located in Outer and Inner Western Sydney, under the Settlement Grants Program (SPG), now known as Settlement Engagement and Transition Support (SETS), funded by the Federal Department of Home Affairs.

Information and service access issues

SETS workers from 78 providers across Australia, funded under SETS – Client Services for the period 1 January 2019 to 30 June 2022, during this COVID-19 period, will necessarily be delivering services ‘from home.’ As a consequence, the SETS target group, including 20,102 humanitarian entrants that are settled in all states/territories between 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2019 (see figure 1 below), are likely to receive less face-to-face casework, interaction, and access to services at a time of even greater need to address their current settlement issues and concerns.Permanent Settlers (All Streams) in all States/Territories with a Date of Settlement* between 01 January 2019 and 31 December 2019

Figure 1: Permanent Settlers (All Streams) in all States/Territories with a Date of Settlement* between 01 January 2019 and 31 December 2019

There are a number of translation and interpreting services in Australia,
such as the Federal Government Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) operating 24/7 and the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service, that cover a very large number of languages. The Federal Government on 11/3/2020 announced a $30 million public information campaign. However, with increased demand many new migrants and refugees may find it more difficult than usual to get the necessary information, assistance, and support when needed. There are more than 21% of the population who speak languages other than English at home, and 6% that either speak little English or none at all. It is likely that there will be longer wait times from increasing demand in this COVID-19 period for such essential services.

A significant number of new migrants and humanitarian entrants that have resettled in Australia, particularly in the past 5 years, struggle with accessing information and services on their own. COVID-19 has forced a large number of Australians to ‘self-isolate’ or ‘stay at home.’ This has made it much harder for this population group. One contributing factor to this is the considerably diverse educational backgrounds of recently arrived humanitarian migrants. Some have relatively few years of education. Research, in 2017, found that 15% had no formal education and a further 18% had six or fewer years of schooling). Another contributing factor is digital exclusion. Research in 2019 has shown recently-arrived Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) migrants who had arrived under the humanitarian immigration program recorded a lower level of digital inclusion than the national average, primarily due to very low levels of affordability.

Older people in this population group are particularly at risk of not understanding and adhering to the required course of action needed to keep people safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19. As Associate Professor Robyn Woodward-Kron, at Melbourne University, explains, “some of the older migrants in Australia have had very little schooling, so they need reliable information that they can understand.”

It is particularly important that there is a ‘coordinated and creative’ approach involving a diverse range of stakeholders including community leaders, different multicultural organisations and community groups to develop the required information and disseminate it in appropriate and effective ways.

Health impacts
Increased Survivor’s Guilt

Research in 2019 found humanitarian migrant populations remain at high risk for mental illness over the first 3 years of resettlement in Australia. One contributing factor to this is survivor’s guilt. This is a sense of deep guilt a person may experience because they have survived a life-threatening situation (i.e., wars, natural disasters, and other traumas), when others have not. COVID-19 may be likely to increase survivor’s guilt among newly arrived migrants and refugees to Australia. This could be exacerbated by numerous domestic and overseas news reports of the alarming speed and spread of COVID-19 across the globe as well as fears of the unknown and for the welfare of friends and family left behind in home countries and refugee camps. Survivor’s guilt is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Thus COVID-19 could potentially raise the positive screening of PTSD above the 52.4%, shown in a 2019 study, among the humanitarian migrant populations in Australia.

Further stigma

Stigma is already identified as one of the critical barriers to help-seeking for mental health or other health advice, particularly amongst refugee men in Australia. History and international experiences suggest COVID-19, like other pandemics (i.e., Spanish Flu and Ebola), could very well increase this stigma in the recently-arrived CALD migrant population who entered the country under the humanitarian program. This could mean less COVID-19 testing, social rejection, denial of services, and reduced treatment opportunities for Australian new migrants and refugees. Moreover, it can also lead to elevated depressive symptoms, stress, and substance use within this population group. Therefore, COVID-19 can effectively cause further stigma, which can result in mental and physical harm. This could include increasing the present prevalence estimates for depression and anxiety above the current 20% for migrants and 40% for refugees.

A final note, although COVID-19 is having significant impacts on the Australian community, newly arrived migrants and humanitarian entrants are at risk of experiencing increasing challenges as a result of this pandemic.

 

The social gradient of COVID-19

by Andrew Reid and Siggi Zapart

While COVID-19 does not discriminate, the impacts of the virus will not be equitably distributed. Vulnerable populations living in low socioeconomic disadvantaged communities will feel its health and educational impacts far more strongly than those living in more affluent areas.

 Health impacts
 Reduced access to essential healthcare

Some health experts suggest the COVID-19 pandemic could infect up to 70% of Australians. Based on estimates of current infection, more than 45,000 Australians will have COVID-19 by 10 April, 2020. At least 2,254 people would require ICU beds, (more than the current Australian capacity of 2,229). People in lower socioeconomic disadvantaged communities generally have poorer health and higher rates of heart and respiratory disease, and chronic illnesses. This means they could make up a large proportion of people likely to need ICU beds, and/or find it a lot harder to receive critical healthcare for their other illnesses in their local hospitals.

Furthermore, the Australian Government’s plan to implement a ‘whole-of-population telehealth’ approach will disadvantage vulnerable populations who do not have access to smartphones or computer technology due to lower income or education levels. The ‘whole-of-population telehealth’ includes phone and video mental health, allied health, and primary health consultations. Moreover, even those with internet access will be disadvantaged due to inferior NBN service types(see graph below). Research conducted in 2016 showed only 29% the most disadvantaged areas across Australia (SEIFA decile of 1) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. In the least disadvantaged(SEIFA decile of 10), 93 % had FTTP or FTTN. This is clear evidence that optimal NBN service increases as the SEIFA decile increases. Hence, even though telehealth is covered by Medicare, people living in disadvantaged suburbs are likely to miss out on the much needed essential services.

Impact on mental health

The continuing upward trend in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across Australia is causing increased anxiety and stress among disadvantaged communities. This is due to multiple and simultaneously occurring factors including, risk and uncertainty associated with the virus; feeling of powerlessness in the current situation; inconsistent messaging and confusion about social distancing measures; separation from loved ones due to quarantine or self-isolation; loss of freedom, and increased boredom; low income reducing to no income; and the type and condition of housing many people in these areas reside in. Most residents in these communities live in low-cost private rentals, social housing, and for some (many with disability, health or mental health issues, victims of domestic violence, people recently released from prison etc.) and social housing bedsits. The pandemic can potentially raise the Australian adult rates of poor mental health(currently 20%) and high or very high psychological distress (13%).

Educational impact

Across Australia, some states have closed schools, commencing school holidays early. Others like NSW have kept them open but encouraged parents to keep children at home. All schools are preparing for online learning, though at this stage, options for school attendance will be available for those that need it in some states.  However, given the low attendance rates (20-30% last week), it seems many parents think it safer to keep their children at home. For students in vulnerable communities, online learning could lead to increased barriers to education. Not all will have access to computers, the internet, or quality technology, such as wireless networks at home or quality NBN service. Many students might have mobile phones, but these may not be enough to engage with the curriculum or complete required tasks. Shools could send home lessons and resources for parents to use, but many parents in these communities would struggle, or not feel confident to teach their children at home.

In addition, the Federal Government’s closure of public libraries and community centres will hurt the educational outcomes of children in disadvantaged communities as these facilities provide a safe environment to facilitate lifelong learning. Public libraries offer free or affordable access to the internet, computers, printers, photocopiers, and a wide range of educational resources. Several community centres host Learning Clubs, i.e., after school programs designed to provide extra assistance to primary and secondary students in developing academic skills, such as homework, numeracy, and literacy. Not having access to these facilities and programs will prevent a large number of children in these disadvantaged communities from participating in learning, completing online school assignments, and having the right to a high-quality education experience.

So, a final note, although COVID-19 is impacting the entire population, those doing it tough already are and will continue to experience even more severe consequences as a result of the pandemic.