On Wednesday 16 September, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, gave evidence at the state hotel quarantine inquiry. Some of Dr Sutton’s comments were used alongside other content in The Age newspaper in attempts at painting the picture of Muslim hotel security staff refusing to use alcohol based hand sanitiser for ‘religious reasons,’ and therefore playing a key role in the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria.
To be absolutely clear, while consuming alcohol is forbidden in Islam, alcohol-based hand sanitisers are not forbidden (haram) because we are not ingesting the hand sanitiser. Same goes with the use of alcohol use as an antiseptic.
Muslim leaders across Australia have consistently encouraged the use of hand sanitisers, face masks and social distancing in a bid to minimise the spread of the virus, in line with Islamic principles and in compliance with government regulations and health advice.
None of our religious leaders have advised against any of the recommendations offered by DHHS.
The Age news article, while not stating the word Islam or Muslims, inadvertently referenced the security staff to be Muslim, reporting (1);
Professor Sutton told the inquiry that there had been instances where security staff in hotels did not appear to trust the information provided to them about infection control. “In particular about how to wear PPE gear, and the use of hand sanitiser, in particular … concerns about using an alcohol-based sanitiser”.
This hand sanitiser concern was also included in notes from the manager of Your Nursing Agency… security guards had informed the agency “they were concerned about using hand sanitiser because it is against their religion”.
It’s misleading and inaccurate news reporting like this that singles out minorities, causes division and further fuels the mistrust Victorians are feeling right now for those managing, or more accurately mismanaging, this second wave of COVID-19.
Rebuilding that trust takes a lot of work and is necessary so that slogans like “We’re all in this together” don’t sound hollow and tokenistic.
These comments have broader implications too, because they suggest that through the COVID-19 pandemic Muslims in Victoria haven’t used hand sanitisers for ‘religious reasons’, which is completely untrue.
Distancing himself from these allegations, Dr Sutton swiftly issued a comment after being contacted by Islamic Council of Victoria (18/09/2020);
I have seen the quotes related to hand hygiene and security staff. I did not repeat claims in the hotel inquiry that they might be related to religious concerns, because I have not heard them directly. I do not know if the quoted reasons by ‘Your Nursing Agency’ have been independently verified. I do indeed hope that I am considered a friend of the community – I have so much respect for them.
To further reinstate his position of not wanting to single out any particular community, Dr Sutton took the added initiative to publicly issue an apology for the Afghan community during his opening remarks at the press conference the following morning, stating;
“I’ll start with an apology. I know members of the Afghan community might’ve felt singled out by statements I made recently. That was absolutely not my intention, so sorry… it’s a country I love and respect it’s people… I apologise.”
This apology was in relation to previous comments where Dr Brett Sutton had inadvertently referenced the Afghan community drawing on his experiences from his time in Afghanistan.
Several Islamic organisations and Muslim community leaders have defended Dr Sutton by saying they don’t believe he’s an Islamophobe but that his comments have been taken out of context by The Age newspaper.
The more important question here of course is, if there were staff who were refusing to use hand sanitisers, for whatever reason, why were they even allowed to be on-site at the quarantine hotels, let alone assigned to protect millions of Victorians from the spread of COVID-19?
The Age newspaper has a reader base of some 4.5 million people across print and digital platforms and as it stands Islamic religious beliefs have been positioned inaccurately in this article, to deliberately mislead these millions of readers, and feed religious bias where they lie.
This is a small part of an ongoing Islamophobic narrative that has played out in intervals throughout the COVID19 pandemic on mainstream Australian media, reinforced by cherry picked comments made by prominent public figures.