A tale of two cities in the same pandemic.

Aug 2, 2021

The eastern suburbs of Sydney became the seeding event for Delta’s entry to Australia. It was nurtured by a driver transferring infected airline personnel to quarantine at the nearby Kingsford Smith airport.

He was unvaccinated and was apparently a fairly socially active man, spreading the virus around a variety of high traffic areas in the east especially in Bondi Junction. Someone who had entered his zone of spread made it to Coogee, where I live, and laid a trail through a couple of local stores. There the virus stopped in Coogee. But it was still on its way elsewhere and soon popped up in Hoxton Park in Sydney’s south west, when someone who had been in Bondi Junction or thereabouts went to a party. Ground zero for the Delta force field with a fecund environment in which to breed.

As testing has ramped up in the west and south west, now reaching 110,000 or so every day across the state,  what benefits would there have been if the testing protocols had included language spoken at home and country of birth? They already contain address and postcode, date of birth, sex, and mobile number. Let’s compare the data that would have helped for Coogee and Hoxton Park.

As we will see the Coogee data drawn from the 2016 ABS Census demonstrates that the suburb is heavily “White”, economically well-off, English-speaking, well-educated, and young adult. Most residents live in small households in apartments.

Meanwhile Hoxton Park is much more multicultural, less well-off and more economically stressed, far less English-speaking, with less education, and far more families with children.  Most residents live in family houses.

Coogee N

Coogee %

NSW %

HPark N

HPark %

Female

8047

52.9

50.7

2211

50.7

Male

7168

47.1

49.3

2146

49.3

Total

15215

4357

Families

3542

1120

Child/family/all

1.6/0.5

2.0/1.4

Av people/ household

2.3

3.6

H’hold Income

2396

1725

Monthly mortgage

2743

2113

Motor vehicles

1.3

2.1

Ages

0-19

2650

17.3

24.3

1410

32.3

20-39

6749

44.3

27.4

1280

29.3

40-64

4344

31.8

32.4

1369

31.4

65+

1500

9.8

16.2

296

6.9

Highest education >15yr

Bachelor+

6071

46.5

442

13.5

Year 12

1772

13.6

764

23.3

Year 9 below

267

2.0

306

9.3

Top Ancestry

 

Australian

16.4

22.9

10.2

English

24.2

23.3

8.9

Irish

13.0

7.5

Scottish

6.9

5.9

Italian

3.2

2.8

5.4

Indian

2.1

7.3

Chinese

5.2

4.8

Country of Birth

Australia

54.3

65.5

50.9

England

8.2

3.0

Ireland

3.7

0.3

NZ

2.7

1.6

2.3

USA

1.6

0.4

Fiji

0.5

7.2

Iraq

0.5

6.6

Philippines

1.2

2.8

Vietnam

1.1

2.8

Both parents born overseas

42.4

37.0

69.9

Language spoken at home (OTE)

French

2.0

0.3

Spanish

1.6

0.8

3.4

Greek

1.5

1.1

Portuguese

1.4

0.3

Arabic

2.7

9.1

Hindi

0.9

8.5

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

0.3

4.0

Vietnamese

1.4

3.8

English only household

73.2

68.5

37.4

Religion

No religion

36.5

25.1

9.3

Catholic

26.1

24.7

33.0

Anglican

10.0

15.5

Eastern Orthodox

3.2

2.5

Islam

3.6

9.6

Buddhism

2.8

7.8

 

It is quite a simple exercise to inter-relate these data using the ABS tool Tablebuilder Pro, a reasonably sophisticated device that allows a deepening of our understanding of the circumstances in which Delta is finding purchase. Why is this important, given the data are five years old?

Surely the situation in both suburbs will have changed (the backpackers in Coogee will be gone, for instance, and there will be more children in those homes in Hoxton Park). However, let’s assume the testing does collect country of birth and language spoken at home (which it currently does not, except in the Commonwealth government GP respiratory clinics). In Hoxton Park, we know that two thirds of households do not use English as the internal communication mode, the households are 50% more densely populated than in Coogee, while household incomes are about 30% lower. We can also plug in median household incomes, rentals or mortgage payments, occupations and location of employment, use of motor vehicles to travel to work, and a major list of potential conditions that exacerbate the challenge. None of these are “cultural” in the sense of being associated with the world view of individuals, though they may indeed be strongly affected by the association with specific social class indicators.

Early data from the USA demonstrated that race was both its own indicator of vulnerability, and a proxy for parameters that accelerated the spread of viruses. These proxies include over-crowding, lack of internal ventilation in households, lack of available uncrowded open space, language and education, poverty or income stress, impossibility of isolating in households, employment in industries or occupations that intensify interactions in crowded spaces, and so forth.

Over the past ten days the state has seen about one million tests, carried out by a variety of services – the GP respiratory clinics (though many now are into vaccinations), testing hubs operated by private laboratories, and Health NSW testing. They report data to government that gives age, gender and address (post code). Were we to add to this data “language spoken at home” and “country of birth”, and were we to have the pre-populated data profiles for all the post codes, within minutes and on a rolling and increasing level of confidence we would see two things – community networks of potential infection, and the “dark holes” where testing has not occurred.

We would know very soon if Calathumpian speakers aged 20-30 in suburb A who were born in Australia were not appearing on the register. We would be alerted to the issue that our previous attempts to use Calathumpian community leaders (doctors, clergy, elders etc) to get messages through had not been successful in reaching this group however successful they may have been in reaching older people from the community (and sociologists could tell you a fair bit about hierarchies of influence in minority communities and the gaping hole between the older generations born overseas and the younger ones born in Australia).  We would see very quickly what those households looked like and the specific stresses that should be addressed if their behaviour were to be influenced so that the far less helpful option of the military on the streets of our mainly “multicultural” suburbs was reduced.

This morning walking down Coogee Bay Road to buy bread I reflected on how the class, income, ethnicity, race and educational attributes of my neighbours meant that the most we had was a Council sign on the beach advising us to exercise and not to sit – the sign was only in English but here that didn’t matter. On the sidewalks hardly anyone was masked, even as the crowds thickened on yet another sunny day.

I also reflected that had NSW Health decided a year ago, as they had been warned to do,  to include cultural diversity in its assessment of the epidemiological parameters of viral infections, then perhaps we’d be in a far less dangerous place than we are today. My advice to all jurisdictions, do it, get the data, use the data, and help keep our populations safe.

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