Disease detectives are racing to work out the link between two families infected with coronavirus in Melbourne's south-eastern suburb of Hallam, identified along with neighbouring Narre Warren as the city's latest virus hotspot.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton urged anyone living in the Casey local government area who had symptoms such as coughing, sore throat or fever to come forward for testing, and offered to go to the sprawling multicultural council himself to speak to the community.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has offered to meet members of Casey’s Afghani community.Credit:Eddie Jim
The outbreak, which now involves nine cases, represented almost a quarter of the 35 new cases reported in Melbourne on Monday.
Community leaders have told The Age they believed two families from Hallam's Afghan community are among those infected.
"I have made an offer to personally speak to that community," Professor Sutton said. "Having been to Afghanistan a couple of times over the years, I want to be able to reflect on my cultural experiences and the fact I know that there are universal motivations that every family has to do the right thing to protect their own families and the wider community. That is absolutely the case here and I know they're motivated to get on top of this as much as anyone."
Professor Sutton stressed that residents appeared to have caught the virus at high-risk workplaces, rather than by breaching Melbourne's lockdown restrictions.
“I think there are genuine structural issues about work, workforce, that make transmission more likely. They do the right thing. But they have some vulnerabilities in terms of where and how they are needing to work.”
There were 84 active cases in City of Casey on Monday, fewer than Wyndham, Brimbank or Melton.
Mobility data from Google and Facebook shows people living in Casey, the local government area that covers Hallam and Narre Warren, have been leaving home more often during Melbourne’s lockdown, on average, than other areas.
The stage-four lockdown, which targeted businesses, appeared to reverse that trend, said Melbourne University researcher Rohan Byrne, who is part of the team of scientists tracking the virus for the federal government.
But in the past fortnight, people in Casey have started leaving their homes again, he said. Most of that activity happened during weekdays, suggesting a strong link with work.
The data also shows when people in Casey do leave the house, they are more reliant than other areas on public transport.
University of NSW bio-statistician Dr Nicolas Rebuli said: "I’d consider both of these activities quite high risk – especially if they have high-risk occupations."
The Afghan community in Melbourne’s south-east is particularly vulnerable to the virus, as many of its members cannot read or write, community leader Bassir Qadiri said.
Mr Qadiri has been translating public-health messages into Dari and calling members of the Afghan community to go through the information with them.
“The government is doing their best. But because of a language and cultural barriers, it’s really difficult for the government to reach out. Especially for the Afghan community, where most of them are vulnerable seniors who have never had an education back home and are unable to read and write even in their own language,” he said.
He confirmed he had heard of two Afghan families in Hallam who had fallen ill with COVID-19.
Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre chairman Brian Oates said that aged care and insecure work would most likely be driving transmissions.
"It does seem that aged care workers are the conduit for the coronavirus in many occasions. Aged care workers tend to be casual people who work in two or three different facilities at the same time in order to make ends meet," Mr Oates said.
"People just have to work in several different areas because they can't get enough work in a single job as a casual worker. It's very disappointing and I think is one of the big lessons from this COVID situation. We need to pay more attention to insecure work."
The Age has reported extensively on potential links between disadvantage, insecure work, and the spread of COVID-19.
Mobility data shows that on average more-advantaged areas of Melbourne reduced their mobility than less-advantaged areas during lockdown.
Workers in Casey were mostly employed in aged care, hospitals, supermarkets, takeaway food and childcare at the time of the 2016 Census.
Those industries are all considered essential and cannot be done from home, and have been identified as the most difficult workplaces to suppress the virus.
Responses show that 3.7 per cent of people in Hallam work in aged care, compared to 1.8 per cent of people in other Victorian suburbs. But fewer Hallam workers were employed in hospitals than the state average.
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