Sutton apologies over offensive comments

Victorian Chief health officer Brett Sutton.

By Brendan Rees

Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton has publicly apologised after being accused of singling out Casey’s Afghan community for the recent cluster of Covid-19.

Professor Sutton made the immediate apology at a coronavirus briefing on Saturday morning, 19 September.

“I know members of the Afghan community might have felt singled out by statements I made recently. It was absolutely not my intention, so sorry,” he said.

“I have volunteered a couple of times to work in Afghanistan in 1997 and 2003. It’s a country I love and respect and its people.”

It came as Professor Sutton said on Monday 14 September that working with Casey’s Afghan community was a “priority for engagement and a priority for testing for us” – which were labelled as “offensive” and “inappropriate to finger point at a specific community” by Casey’s community leaders.

It later emerged that infected members in Dandenong and Casey had breached the stage-four 5km radius rule by making visits to the other affected households, leading to a 34-strong cluster.

However, Premier Daniel Andrews has continued to defend the decision not to issue any fines over the coronavirus outbreak, saying “The last thing we want to do is to try and do contact tracing where people are not being truthful”.

As of 21 September, there were 55 active cases in the City of Casey.

Casey’s 2020 citizen of the year and Afghan community leader Bassir Qadiri accepted Professor Sutton’s apology on behalf of Casey’s Afghan members, saying they believed he “didn’t intend to single out a specific community”.

“Afghanistan born Australians like any other Australians are applying all the advice of health authorities and actively putting all the measures on their behaviours to stop the transmission of the virus,” he said.

“On behalf of my community and Bakhtar Cultural Association, I would like to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to Hon Daniel Andrews and his team, especially professor Brett Sutton for this successful result. We are looking forward to continuing our efforts until the virus is eradicated in Australia.”

Sadia Ali, president of the United Cultural Support Inc, said the Afghan community welcomed Professor Sutton’s apology “whole heartedly”. “As one big community we are all in this together and present our cooperation in following the health guidelines and rules coming from the Department of Health and Human Services,” she said.

Afghan Australian Community of Victoria spokeswoman Zahida Popal said it also “warmly” accepted the apology and was “committed to working closely with the state health authorities to support each other and work towards keeping our community safe”.

“Taking this moral responsibility publicly, maintains trust and builds further confidence in our government official and health authorities,” she said.

Meanwhile, general practitioner Dr Tony Atkins at Berwick Healthcare said the “enormous” challenge of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic was ensuring that culturally and linguistically diverse communities as well as the community’s older generation had an understanding about self-care and government advice to avoid infection and transmission.

He also noted there must be a “recognition” that “we shouldn’t be blaming” communities. “We should be taking on every opportunity to handle things better as we experience anything going on … so that every part of the community ends up being safe,” Dr Atkins said.