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Leading medical epidemiologist warns of major public health risk in excluding groups from COVID-19 response

A leading medical epidemiologist has today warned of the public health risks if the Australian government does not extend its COVID-19 response measures to include vulnerable groups that are currently excluded.

“In crowded settings where physical distancing and personal hygiene are difficult, the virus has spread rapidly. This is demonstrated by rapidly escalating outbreaks among migrant workers in Singapore, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. In all of these countries, migrant workers have been housed in crowded dormitories with inadequate access to clean water and sanitation,” medical epidemiologist and principal research fellow at Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, Professor Michael Toole AM said.

“To effectively suppress community transmission of the coronavirus in Australia, key elements of the response need to be accessible by vulnerable populations(…). These may include those who have not been eligible for government benefits and thus cannot afford decent housing, food and access to health care.

Australia must do all it can to ensure that vulnerable people such as those lacking permanent resident status are not disadvantaged by their inability to adhere to recommended public health measures like physical distancing and hand-washing.

Professor Toole’s warning comes as over 180 organisations have collectively called on the government to extend its COVID-19 response to over a million people currently excluded – and avoid a major risk to public health in the process.

The open letter, sent today to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston, is signed by a cross-section of civil society including NGOs, unions, faith-based organisations, legal services providers and more. The letter calls on the government to fill gaps in its COVID-19 support package, which currently leave over a million people on temporary and bridging visas without access to financial, legal or medical support.

Paul Power, Refugee Council CEO, said “The Government’s COVID-19 response has left over a million people, including people seeking asylum and refugees on temporary visas, out in the cold. They, like all Australians, are facing job losses and financial hardship right now. Without access to basic support, there is a serious risk that these people – including many families with children – will become destitute or homeless.

“This is not just dangerous for those in question but for the wider Australian community,” Mr Power said. “We only have to look to Singapore to see the risk associated with excluding non- citizens from crucial support. Like Australia, early interventions meant that cases were low in Singapore. Like Australia, the Singaporean government introduced extensive support packages but excluded large numbers of people on the basis of their visa status. In recent days, there has been a huge explosion of cases in Singapore among migrant workers living in cramped conditions, as they were unable to safely distance from one another. Formerly considered a world leader in their response to the pandemic, Singapore now has the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia.

“This should serve as a clear warning to Australia,” Mr Power said. “Many people on bridging or temporary visas are living in overcrowded situations due to financial hardship. As the financial fallout of the pandemic increases, this situation will only deteriorate. The Australian government has shown true leadership in its response to COVID-19 thus far. We’re simply asking them to fill in the gaps.”

Australian Council of Social Service CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said: “Temporary migrants, including asylum seekers and international students, are being left to face destitution, without access to JobSeeker, JobKeeper or Medicare and this needs to be urgently fixed. Now, more than ever, we are seeing how much we rely on each other as a community and that the only way through this crisis is by working together to ensure nobody is left behind.”

Michele O’Neil, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, added: “Australia is not the kind of country where we leave people to starve because they have been denied access to income and support. During Covid-19 all people in Australia must be able to access the services they need to stay safe, put food on their table and keep a roof over their head.”

The letter launches the #NobodyLeftBehind campaign, which will bring together NGOs, legal organisations, unions, local governments, educational and medical bodies in advocating for the extension of the existing packages.

The letter can be viewed here.

Media enquiries: Laura Stacey / 0481 356 846