How Australia's tech-savvy COVID-19 response is leaving CALD communities behind

Australia's culturally and linguistically diverse communities are what makes the country unique, but have they been let down and left behind during the pandemic?

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Culturally and linguistically diverse communities across greater Sydney are struggling to keep up with COVID-19 digital initiatives. 

Image: Aimee Chanthadavong

For parts of greater Sydney that have been labelled as "areas of concern", it's now the 10th week of COVID-19 lockdown. These once vibrant communities are fraught with overwhelming frustration, anger, resentment, anxiety, and are simply just tired. I know this because I currently reside in one of these affected local government areas (LGAs).

Besides being locked down, one of the unfortunate issues -- which has not been widely addressed -- is that state and federal governments, as well as retailers, have leaned heavily on using technology to help these LGAs cope with such restrictions.

For instance, one of the initial actions that retailers took to operate in a "COVID safe way" was to discourage the use of cash payments.

This was followed by the New South Wales government introducing its QR code check-in system for COVID-19 contact tracing. Initially, QR check-in was only mandated at hospitality venues and Service NSW centres across the state but in July that was extended to all retail businesses, supermarkets, individual shops within shopping centres, entry points at shopping centres, gyms, offices, call centres, manufacturing and warehousing businesses, universities and TAFE, and schools including teachers and visitors.

More recently, as part of enforcing even stricter lockdown restrictions in LGAs of concern, the NSW government announced that retailers -- garden centres and plant nurseries, office supplies, hardware and building supplies, landscaping material supplies, rural supplies, and pet supplies -- were required to close and operate via click and collect only.

Introducing these systems make perfect sense for a majority, given that the uptake of digital technology continues to grow. What this system has failed to consider though is for more than half of the households living in these impacted areas, which includes some of Sydney's most multicultural communities, English is a second language and cash is king.  

My mum, who neither reads English nor speaks it very well, is a prime example. She not only struggles with using a smartphone, but using a digital payment method, checking into a venue using the QR code system, and turning to online shopping are incomprehensible to her.

Speaking to ZDNet, a Woolworths spokesperson admitted that customers in the LGAs of concerns require language support, highlighting it offers these customers access to translation services to help with website navigation through its Customer Hub phone line. 

"Customers can use a range of third-party digital translation services on our website. We're exploring ways to better integrate translation into the digital experience to make it easier for our customers in the future. We know it's important to meet the needs of our diverse customer base," the retail giant said.

IGA, which prides itself as being a community-minded supermarket chain, said it too has been offering impacted communities with alternative purchasing solutions.

"As IGA stores are independent family-owned businesses, they already have many systems in place to meet the needs of their communities, with many stores already taking orders directly from their local customers by phone and email as well as operating their own online shopping and click and collect systems," said the Metcash-owned retailer. 

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we launched IGA Priority Shop, which was a basic home delivery service to support elderly, vulnerable, or isolated customers by providing essential grocery packs to their door.

"This evolved into an online portal that provided a home delivery service to customers from their local participating store straight to the door. We have now accelerated the development of IGA Shop Online, a full online shopping offer that is being rolled out rapidly nationally."

"We were also first to market with partnerships with Door Dash and Uber Eats to provide fast delivery of essential items to IGA customers," IGA added.

For Bunnings, which has not only chosen to close stores to non-tradespeople in LGAs of concern but across greater Sydney, it has encouraged customers to shop online.

"Following the latest government announcement, we've taken additional steps to protect the safety and wellbeing of team and customers by closing all stores in Sydney to retail customers, including those located in impacted LGAs. During this time, trade customers can continue to access stores, while retail customers will be able to purchase items online using click and deliver and our contactless drive and collect service," Bunnings Operations general manager Ryan Baker said.

"Our team are doing an amazing job preparing online orders, however, given the increased demand we do expect it to take a little longer to get items ready for customers and we appreciate their understanding."

Similarly, Officeworks has closed its stores across greater Sydney. When asked about what purchasing options have been set up for customers impacted by the closures, the retailer directs ZDNet to its website for the full list, which includes click and collect and home delivery.

"The safety of our customers and our team members is our priority. Officeworks has operated in line with government guidelines introduced into various parts of Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic," an Officeworks spokesperson said. 

"We have been open to various extents throughout lockdowns around the country, with our stores often operating only for purchases made via contactless click and collect. We have seen an increase in online sales as part of our every channel offer."

While the intentions of these retailers are all well and good, the new offerings still rely on customers not only having some digital knowledge, but they also must be proficient in English too.

What life looks like after lockdown doesn't look any more promising either. 

The Australian government has already rolled out COVID-19 vaccine digital certificates to help individuals retrieve proof of their vaccination. But getting these certificates requires a number of steps: Setting up an online myGov account, linking the myGov account with Medicare, and then accessing the certificate, such as through the Medicare Express Plus app. The NSW government is also contemplating introducing its own proof-of-vaccination app.

One alternative to the digital certificate offered by the federal government is getting a clinician to print out a physical copy of a person's immunisation history statement. However, those are just pieces of paper that I imagine you could easily forge, not unlike a child forging their parent's signature for school permission slips, or maybe you could hack into some French medical systems and print your own.

Additionally, the NSW government has introduced COVID-19 QR code check-in cards, nearly a whole year after the state government first introduced the QR code check-in system. It claims the card is an alternative check-in method for customers who don't have a smartphone or are uncomfortable using the Service NSW online form. But this system falls short as the check-in method is currently only available at businesses that have a QR compatible device. It's also not mandatory for businesses to accept this form of check-in.

If the message is that we're all in this together, perhaps it's time government and industry think about methods that are accessible by everyone.

More on COVID-19 in Australia