How a special vaccine program connected with this region’s multicultural residents

A community centre in Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria border has been the site of a hugely successful regional COVID-19 vaccination program.

Dressed in full protective gear, community leaders speak in Swahili, Nepali, Hindi, French, dialects of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many others, checking in on community members one at a time in a steady stream of arrivals that lasts for hours.

This initiative - run in partnership between the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council (AWECC) and Albury-Wodonga Health, and funded by the Victorian government - has been a key step in the region reaching a vaccination rate among the highest in the country.

Over 95 per cent of those aged over 15 in the twin cities have now been fully vaccinated, while more than 1,000 people from the region's multicultural communities are double dosed.

Among them is Dunia Hussein, who arrived in Australia from the Democratic Republic of Congo just before the pandemic hit.

“We have seen someone here who speaks Swahili from our community, so we are happy for him because he helps us with some information,” he told SBS News.

Mr Hussein and his partner had their first dose of the vaccine at a mainstream clinic, but the experience left them unsure about the second until he discovered the in-language outreach.

Given its success, AWECC's Roberta Baker said the program should be replicated nationwide to reach others who are vaccine-hesitant within ethnic communities.

“This has actually turned out to be a template for how to do this across the nation,” she said.

“It can’t be done from higher up within the public sector - it has to be done on the ground with local people and local knowledge.”

Bhutanese-Australian Ganga Khanal has been in Australia for nine years. He's a respected elder in the local community of around 3,000 and has been a staunch advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I can talk to my children and my family and friends in Nepali,” he said. “When I have the information I can tell everyone in the community and I am very confident they will get help too.”

Initially funded for two outreach clinics, AWECC scaled up and held 17 to cater to the increasing demand.

Congolese national Clement Birori helped drum up interest, making hundreds of phone calls to dispel myths and offer reassurances in nine languages.

“They trust us,” he says of the community.

“If you’re working with the community, speaking the same language, share the same culture, they know you [and] it’s easy to understand and to follow the rules from the government.”

In just a few months, Mr Birori has helped vaccinate more than 400 of the eligible 650 Congolese refugees in the region after many showed hesitancy during the mainstream vaccine rollout.

'Almost all the Bhutanese are done'

Meanwhile, in the local Bhutanese community, more than 98 per cent of people are now double dosed, largely thanks to the efforts of people such as Bhakti Mainali Dhamala.

“At the beginning, we are struggling to get people in to get the vaccination because they had lots of worries whether or not it is safe, but now more people are getting forward. Almost all the Bhutanese are done,” she said.

Harka Bista is a well-known face in the local Bhutanese community.

Arriving in Australia in 2010, his focus during the regional vaccination efforts has been reaching out to vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community, often arranging their transport to and from clinics.

“People are getting confident because I speak my own language and some of my colleagues speak their own language,” he said.

“That makes them very comfortable to communicate, to share their feelings and their views, and they are highly motivated to attend the clinics.”

Narayani Siwakoti came to Australia from Bhutan just before the international border shut last year. She said she wanted to get vaccinated for her three children, her community, and her new country. 

“We all need to get that vaccine. That is good for us to live a long life. They are making us comfortable and they give us the confidence to get the vaccine,” she said.

'The job's not over'

Albury-Wodonga is currently recovering from its biggest COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic, experienced during October and November.

Case numbers in the twin regional cities rose by around 1,200.

The outbreak forced dozens of migrant and refugee families into isolation, many without any family to call upon for help with supplies.

Peter Matthews from charity FoodShare said requests for emergency food hampers rose from 65 per week to more than 65 per day.

“Immediately they found when there was a virus in their household they weren’t allowed to leave home from that point on, so they were suddenly locked down and hadn’t done their weekly grocery shop,” he said.

But while vaccination rates are high and case numbers have fallen, there is still more work to do.

Local health authorities have launched an initiative to take the vaccine to those still unvaccinated in a new bus.

Bright green, and covered in pictures of healthcare workers and well-known faces from the community, the bus dubbed "Roll Up Reggie" is designed to pick up any left behind on Albury-Wodonga’s road out of COVID-19.

“The job's not over,” Albury-Wodonga Public Health's Jessica Amy said. 

“We know we have high vaccination rates but delving into the data we know that we’ve got some postcodes that don’t have high vaccination rates and we need to get there.”

The importance of the multicultural vaccine program in keeping the community safe cannot be overstated, the service's Jenny Keogh added.

“COVID-19 is a highly infectious virus, and getting the vaccine to those members of the community has no doubt saved many lives,” she said.

The federal MP for the area, independent Helen Haines, agreed.

"These are communities that are really good at working together, really good at recognising who’s missing, who’s voices we’re not hearing and I think this response from the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council demonstrates really clearly that being aware of who’s missing is really important in getting the response you need," she said.

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