Many years from now, medical students will be analysing the case study of Victoria and NSW to understand the impacts of racism and Islamophobia on public health during a pandemic.
Hopefully by then, communities that have suffered systemic racism and intergenerational trauma in Australia, will be living in a society where things like systemic, institutionalised and internalised racism, are a thing of the past.
Racism poses a serious threat to public health.
A recent research article published by JAMA Health Forum explores the correlation between racism and vaccine hesitancy amongst health care workers in the United States.
The research identified that vaccine hesitancy was five times higher amongst black health care workers compared to white and two times higher in Hispanic or Latino communities. (1)
It further argues that “Vaccine Hesitancy Is a Scapegoat for Structural Racism” stating that, “Mistrust of medicine and science is based in a long and sordid history of unethical practice and research on African American, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American populations in this country.” (2)
Another recent article by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) argues that “Socioeconomic privilege and political ideology are associated with racial disparity in COVID-19 vaccination.” (3)
This research once again highlights the correlation between racism, socio-economic status and vaccine uptake concluding that, “Failure to address these structural barriers poses the dual risks of additional lives lost and a significant slowdown in progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic or combating similar future outbreaks.”
These are timely, valuable and important lessons Australia can learn from as similar references can be made with communities that experience systemic racial and religious discrimination here in Australia.
Health care workers, in the last week of September 2021, have reported that some migrant communities were disproportionately represented in the emergency wards, being treated for COVID-19 symptoms ranging in age from 24 to 71.
To be clear, there are countless countries around the world, with predominant Muslim populations, that have stronger vaccination numbers than Australia, per capita. United Arab Emirates being the global frontrunner (at over 80% fully vaccinated), followed closely by Turkey which has a population of over 90% Muslim and over 60% fully vaccinated.
Our national response to COVID-19 must include a framework that includes the needs of marginalised communities, proactively and transparently addressing any distrust due to racism and inter-generational trauma, while dismantling the systems and structures that continue to discriminate against minorities.
Sadly, State leadership in Victoria have also conveniently delegated the job of dismantling the effects of decades of systemic and institutionalised racism on community leaders during the pandemic. Their grassroots efforts must be complimented by an intersectional top down approach.
There have been countless virtual information sessions led by community leaders, sheikhs, doctors, experts in the field, to dispel myths and misinformation.
Tirelessly and thankless throughout this pandemic Muslim doctors, nurses, sheikhs, volunteers have been present, repeatedly spoken up, gone above and beyond their duties to diligently serve their community with compassion, during these unprecedented times.
It is unreasonable to expect the impacts of systemic racism to be dismantled by leaders from within the communities that are being discriminated against.
Much of the good work of community leaders is often undone by racism and Islamophobia in mainstream media, by prominent public figures and politicians that opportunistically use even the pandemic to peddle anti-Muslim sentiment and racism.
We can’t keep ignoring the elephant in the room. Our governments must acknowledge the impacts of structural racism on vaccine hesitancy and approach communities impacted in a way that demonstrates trustworthiness and inclusion. Where there’s trust, there’s no need for mandates
More importantly let’s learn from other countries who are already leading the way in dismantling systemic racism as a strategic pathway out of this pandemic.