University of Technology Sydney: If you’re not counted, you don’t count. Sociology 101

Painting and pandemic came together for Andrew Jakubowicz in the realisation that there was a big missing piece in Australia’s handling of COVID-19. It had everything to do with a long history of not enough account being taken of Australia’s culturally diverse communities.

A newly announced fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, recognised for his research on cultural diversity and contributions to public policy and innovative communication of social research, Jakubowicz saw a need to act during Sydney’s first lockdown in April last year after painting a picture of the virus-plagued cruise ship Ruby Princess “bobbing off Coogee”.

“Fifty years a sociologist”, the Emeritus Professor in the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences says the reason he’s a sociologist came front of mind in the questions he started asking himself while contemplating his painting of the Ruby Princess.

“I am wondering what the pandemic and the (first) lockdown will mean for Australia’s culturally diverse communities,” he says in the text of a New Fellow Presentation to the academy.

“The first reports from New York tell of people of colour succumbing far more quickly and dramatically than richer white folks. So race is a proxy for class and class underpins vulnerabilities in a racially encoded society. Australia could be different but is it and how and why? After all our PM tells us we are the most successful multicultural society in the world.”

Making contact and asking questions among government bodies including Multicultural NSW and NSW Health and then the World Health Organisation, it became apparent to Jakubowicz that the rapidly rolling out testing regimes were not collecting any ethnic data.

My learning from the Plague Years is that the infection is about biology, the plague is about social science. If you’re not counted, you don’t count. Sociology 101.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Andrew Jakubowicz


It was therefore not known how the virus was spreading in ethnic communities, who was being tested or missing testing, or how ethnic networks could be harnessed for positive messaging and to combat misinformation.

“A courteous request to Minister Hunt’s office elicits the information that the data is not available because the jurisdictions have to agree to mandate it and no-one has asked in 20 years,” Jakubowicz says.

“[Then] the key NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) COVID committee advises the government in mid-2020, that CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) needs and experiences have to be identified, but provides no advice on how, because, it is put to me by some of its members, the Government doesn’t want to hear that advice.”

Becoming an expert volunteer member of the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group, Jakubowicz published widely disseminated analyses of the challenges of the Australian health data system to recognise the experience of the pandemic on Australia’s CALD communities.

“It will take over a year for the people who want to know about the impact on multicultural Australia to make significant headway, after hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalisations, with havoc wrought especially through the multicultural communities of the cities and rural diverse communities.

“Today the data has been extracted and massaged from the vaccination register by a team of data scientists, from millions of vax registrations, and now finally is being used quietly to support the front-line teams trying to ensure the vaccine gets to everyone and everywhere it is needed.

“Many of those who have seen the data but had previously denied its value, grasp immediately how critical it would have been, and now remains, to our well-being. Some also realise how much damage was done because of the data hesitancy they championed, though we will unlikely ever know its scope for sure.

“My learning from the Plague Years is that the infection is about biology, the plague is about social science. If you’re not counted, you don’t count. Sociology 101.”

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