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COVID-19 doesn't discriminate, nor should we



I don’t like sci-fi movies and even if I did, it would have been hard to come up with a plot remotely similar to what we are seeing now with the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it is affecting our lives and our world. Walking on the street far away from others. No touching, no sharing, no befriending, all so against human nature and certainly for a good reason.

Groceries in a car (Carolina Gottardo)Quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing have become the words of the moment. Some are rightly trying to see the positives in this challenge. They are finding opportunities to spend more time with the family and work from home.

That is, of course, if they actually have a home; if they are not relying on others for food or if they are not survivors of domestic violence.

The ability to work from home or social distance is a class issue. How do you work from home when you are a migrant worker in India relying on a daily wage in the informal economy and now forced to walk miles to get to your village or town in a country in complete lockdown? How do you practice social distancing in the slums of Lagos, the favelas of Rio or the shanty towns of Bogota, the city where I was born?

Here in Australia, it’s not much different for refugees, people seeking asylum and migrants in vulnerable situations. So many Australians are currently being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. Many Australians or their loved ones have been affected by the virus, have underlying health conditions, are elderly or have lost their jobs or have been forced to close their businesses.

What we see at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia’s Arrupe Place in Western Sydney from people seeking asylum and migrants in vulnerable situations is a story of exclusion exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

During the last few days, things have moved so rapidly. We have been adjusting our delivery models by the day to adapt to people’s needs in the COVID-19 era.


'The COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. It affects different people regardless of their status. An effective COVID-19 response should not discriminate on the basis of immigration status.'


So many of the people we serve are contacting us in desperate situations: loss of jobs, no income, threats from landlords, lack of money to buy basic medicine, domestic violence, lack of access to healthcare and hunger. We have seen entire families who were relying on a sole breadwinner working in casual jobs now completely dependent on charity to fulfil their basic needs. We have listened to people begging us not to close the centre and asking us to continue providing basic food to eat and other essentials.

JRS’ caseworkers tell stories of people that they supported years ago to get jobs and achieve independence who have come back to square one and are unable to meet basic needs. They tell stories of increased anxiety and a surge in suicide ideation.

Demand for our emergency relief services has increased twofold in just two weeks and we are struggling to respond. JRS Australia’s foodbank cannot keep up with the need and we are now desperately marshalling volunteers, vehicles, and money to put in place a home-delivery system.

Centrelink is not an option. The rescue packages and the coronavirus supplement do not extend to people seeking asylum and migrants in vulnerable situations.

This is clearly short sighted. Effectively dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic requires a coordinated approach based on public health needs and not on migration status. It is certainly very challenging for people to self isolate when they have lost their homes, or when they are in immigration detention. It may be too much to ask women to self isolate with DV perpetrators who may kill them anyway. It is also challenging to practice social distancing when people are living in overcrowded accommodation with no access to Medicare.

The COVID 19 doesn’t discriminate. It affects different people regardless of their status. An effective COVID 19 response should not discriminate on the basis of immigration status.

As an essential service JRS Australia has not closed our doors. Our services have adapted and we continue supporting people in need, with food, emergency relief, casework and other services. We are also advocating for access to a safety net for all people affected in Australia, regardless of their immigration status, for access to health services to asylum seekers and migrants in vulnerable situations, for migrant and refugee women to be able to be safe at home and for the release of people from immigration detention.

For Australia’s response to be effective, it needs to be solely based on public health considerations, and not on who might be considered as deserving or undeserving.



Carolina Gottardo is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia and co-convenor of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum. 

How can you help? 

Please donate money to JRS Australia’s Emergency Cash Appeal. This money will go towards replenishing our foodbank, paying for medication, and rent, and supporting women out of domestic violence situations. To donate, please call (02) 9356 3888 or email jrsreception@jrs.org.au or click here

(2) Please donate essential food and hygiene items to JRS Australia’s foodbank. To donate, please call (02) 9098 9336 or email amelia.savage@jrs.org.au 

Main image: Groceries in a car (Carolina Gottardo)

Topic tags: Carolina Gottardo, COVID-19, refugees, asylum seekers, migration



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Existing comments

Carolina, The devastating impact of COVID 19 Virus on the disadvantaged of our society, and particularly those in the 'developing world' is almost impossible for the average Australian to appreciate.Being retired, the main impact for me is the forced 'lockdown' I am enduring , but at least I have those whom I love to keep in touch with our modern communications. As a regular traveller to the Philippines to visit relatives, I have seen the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots". I dread the impact of the Virus on the people of the 'slums' if the very strict controls being enforced by the local authorities fail to curb its spread. We are so lucky in Australia. Loss of sports is a very small price to pay for the health of our vulnerable members of society.

Gavin O'Brien | 06 April 2020  

Thank you for an excellent article. Though you may change you mind, for TPV and SHEV holders in Australia when you read the article below. Stay well, Felicia IMPORTANT TO NOTE Further to this article, people who are on Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas are eligible for Special Benefit through Centrelink if they lose their jobs because of the Covid19 virus: https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/special-benefit/who-can-get-it/residence-rules/residence-descriptions. It is equivalent to the Job Seeker payment. They are also eligible for the additional $550 per fortnight: https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/news/more-financial-support-people-affected-coronavirus Pauline Brown President Labor for Refugees Victoria

Felicia Di Stefano | 06 April 2020  

Carolina - there are unintended and frightening consequences regarding lockdowns and curfews in countries where governments do not have the capacity to organise deliveries of food to people who are now unemployed and have no savings. It is a “devil and the deep blue sea” crisis that will intensify as the pandemic makes its relentless way into crowded cities and towns. Apart from donating to international aid and relief organisations, and sending emergency funds to colleagues and friends in these countries, it is hard to know what to do.

Margaret Neith | 06 April 2020  

Excellent article Carolina. The situation for asylum seekers is so dire. Government needs to step up but so do we as a community. It’s in everyone’s interests to support this vulnerable population and avert homelessness and destitution. Failure to do so will have serious and far reaching humanitarian as well as public health consequences.

Eve Lester | 08 April 2020  

Carolina, thank you so much for looking at the whole pandemic of Coronavirus through the eyes of the migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or simply people who are on the move and on the streets. This stirs one’s conscience ! As death is a universal leveller so is also the coved -19. Yet, in Delhi the migrants are being thrashed for getting out on the street to buy or beg essentials by the very residents for whose luxury and comfort these migrants slog and sweat daily. Millions are waiting for the lockdown to end to escape back to their homes 1000 miles away , be it to live or to die !

Jey Veluswamy | 08 April 2020  

Thanks for all the comments. The reality is that people seeking protection and migrants in vulnerable situations in Australia do not currently have access to a safety net amidst the COVID 19 crisis. There is no Government funding for deliveries or emergency relief and many people seeking protection are relying purely on charity. We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis and it will important for us to step up as a community and continue to put pressure for a response based on public health and the basic rights and dignity that every person deserves.

Carolina Gottardo | 10 April 2020