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At a critical time for public health, an urgent call to remove barriers to coronavirus testing

Victoria has recorded 428 new coronavirus cases today, the state’s highest single-day total, and another three deaths, with at least 150 Victorian healthcare workers reported to be infected, according to The Age.

Pandemic control efforts need to support people with visas to come forward for testing, including ensuring there is a firewall between the Department of Home Affairs and health agencies, according to Dr Catherine Orr, who works at a COVID-19 clinic in Melbourne.

She is a signatory to this open letter that Democracy in Colour is encouraging health professionals to sign. It says:

This public health emergency needs all of us to focus on health. Anything deterring people from accessing life-saving care could have life-threatening consequences for our community.”


Catherine Orr writes:

Victoria’s latest dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases has medical professionals like me concerned.  It is clear that a significant number of these recent cases are in our migrant and refugee populations. I have worked in refugee health for the past decade and I feel very strongly for the welfare of these groups during this current lockdown.

Dr Orr

But there is another group of people who are particularly at risk during this pandemic and whose needs are often neglected. These are people who live in Australia without a current visa, also known as ‘undocumented migrants’.

These people have families and loved ones just like all of us. These people are hearing the message “if you are sick, get tested” just like all of us.

Getting tested for most of us might be uncomfortable. It might require staying at home for a few days and there might be some worry about where we might have been recently and who else in our family circle could be at risk.

For a person without a visa, however, getting a tested could have drastic, life-changing consequences.

I was part of the government response to the Cedar meats outbreak. We were situated in the west of Melbourne and tested a large number of people working in the meatworks as well as the general public. Everyone who presented for a test was asked if they had any connection to the Cedar meatworks outbreak. 

Firewall needed

My clearest memory of those hectic days were of the people who came without Medicare to take a test and reported working at a meatworks – but not that meatworks. The more questions we asked, the greater the look of fear in their eyes became.

What did that look of fear represent? Fear of getting sick? Fear of family getting sick? Fear of losing their job?

Maybe, but for people without visas in Australia, there is a much greater fear behind presenting for a COVID19 test. People without visas may risk separation from family, being placed in detention or even deportation to a country where they could be at an even greater risk. 

This is because currently, health services in Australia are obliged to share information with the Department of Home Affairs, if its requested.

Doctors like myself are calling for a firewall between health services and the Department of Home Affairs in order to protect the health and safety of the undocumented workers in Australia. 

No-one should be punished for seeking healthcare or presenting for a COVID19 test during this pandemic. 

We have seen how a small breach in infection control practices leads rapidly to an escalating outbreak. If we make an already marginalised  community fearful of getting COVID19 testing done because they risk deportation, then we are likely to see clusters like the current one occurring again and again.

Australia should do the right thing and protect the health and safety of undocumented migrants. 

For the sake of the migrants themselves, but also to protect our wider community, there must be a firewall between health services and the Department of Home Affairs.

Democracy in Colour are calling for a firewall between the Department of Home Affairs and health agencies. They have created an open letter to be signed by public health workers and experts, you can sign on here.

• Dr Catherine Orr completed medicine at Monash University graduating with honours in 1997. She completed an intern year in Alice Springs Hospital and entered GP training in 2000. She has worked in rural and remote Australia, completing a Masters in Public Health at Sydney University and further degrees in rural medicine. She has experience in providing refugee health, HIV medicine, Hepatitis B treatment, medical abortion and sexual health and is currently working as part of Victoria’s COVID19 response.

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