Australians probably follow COVID transmission rates closer than the fate of their sports teams, but throughout the crisis there has been very little feedback on how we feel about the situation we are in. Are we clear about what we are being told about how the virus spreads, and how to contain it? Do we think the measures are fair across the community?
Early this month, the Crescent Institute asked Essential Research to find out. In a survey run for over a week, we asked people across the country questions about official communications, social cohesion and fairness. The results were startling.
Many are reassuring but some give signs for concern. A clear majority of people – 58 per cent – say regulations and guidelines have been easy to understand. There are some differences among groups (what party you vote for has an impact) but there’s satisfaction with the messaging across lines of gender and education.
But the most fascinating results surround residents who have – or their family has – come to Australia from overseas and who use their original language at home. This “Language other than English” at home group – or LOTEs – is more positive about the clarity of information they are receiving, at 64 per cent, than the broader community.
The survey’s surprises do not end there. The people who face the greatest social barriers turn out to be the most satisfied with governments. Fifty-nine per cent of people who speak a different language than English at home say the steps taken have been fair compared with 46 per cent of all Australians.
There is one sign of worry, though. That same group has been harder hit with false stories about the virus. Half of them have had to tackle misinformation from family and friends compared with 37 per cent for people who speak English at home.
Something deep and profound is at play. Governments tend to regard these communities as complications for their public health arrangements. The other side is too little recognised: how strong communal identities can encourage open discussion and reinforce the health advice.
It is no coincidence that some of the most ethnically diverse areas in Sydney, which have been subject to the harshest restrictions of movement, now record the highest rates of vaccination.
It’s easy to view immigrants, especially those unable to speak English well, through the lens of social deprivation. They face disadvantage and, sometimes, prejudice. We forget that these newcomers also bring to our nation a global perspective. Australia’s immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers stay remarkably well connected with their families scattered around the world. They are digitally savvy.
They know far more than most of us about how the pandemic is being handled in Hong Kong, Manila or Mumbai. They are intensely aware of the tragedies being played out in Afghanistan, Myanmar or Syria, or the appalling conditions prevailing in refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh or Hagadera in Kenya.
These communities have a far keener sense of perspective than most of us who are glued to the daily press conferences of premiers and chief ministers. Many of them are in personal contact with the outside world each day. The challenges facing their families overseas are palpable.
In Australia, in spite of all the challenges, they find hope. They share an understanding of how crises can reinforce and revitalise a sense of community.
And that matters. Half of the people from these groups say their sense of connection to their communities has become closer since the start of the pandemic, far more than those who speak English at home (35 per cent). In an astounding finding, more than half believe Australia as a whole has become more cohesive (52 per cent) compared with only 35 per cent of those who speak English at home.
There exists among immigrants a resilience in the face of adversity which means greater confidence in their future. By virtue of their decision to move, migrants tend to be self-starters. Refugees are necessarily risk-takers. That’s one reason they are the Australian cohort most likely to set up family businesses.
The world of lockdowns and border closures is not easy. Perhaps it is a good time, in the midst of frustration and uncertainty, to stop regarding immigrants and refugees as an extra problem but as a source of strength. Bonds of ethnic or religious identity can create a real feeling that we are really all in this together.
Multiculturalism is a significant source for hope. A sense of community sustains optimism. Life isn’t easy for newcomers who have poor English language skills, but they bring an unwavering belief that better days lie ahead. It’s a message we can all benefit from hearing right now.
Encoraging news from lockdown … more positive responses from residents who speak a language other than English at home.