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VOICE: Building on pandemic lessons and community strengths

  • Burnet Institute
  • 24 Jan 2023

The VOICE project will build on good practices forged during the pandemic and better connect Victoria’s multicultural communities with the services they need. 


For Burnet Institute, part of strengthening public health practice post-COVID-19 restrictions is more equitable access to health and support services for disadvantaged communities. 

The Victorian Online Initiative for Community Engagement (VOICE) project, being run by Burnet in partnership with community organisations, will consolidate the work of Victoria’s multicultural communities in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and use that to tackle other health challenges. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was a public health emergency that exposed cracks in support for multicultural communities. 

Language barriers were just one factor. Members of these communities were also more likely to be short-term casual workers or temporary migrants excluded from JobKeeper payments or working multiple low-paid jobs. Some avoided COVID-19 tests because a positive result meant they couldn’t work and earn money. 

An independent report into Australia’s pandemic response, led by Peter Shergold AC, noted that by January 2022, the COVID-19 death rate for Australian residents born overseas was almost three times as high as for those born in Australia. Among people born in the Middle East, it was more than 12 times as high. 

But there were also moments of success. The huge lift in vaccination rates among multicultural communities in Melbourne, for example, came when health authorities worked with community groups to disseminate culturally appropriate health information.


VOICE will build on community strengths and good practices during the pandemic to build better connections between researchers, government and multicultural communities. 

“The overall aim for the program is that we create something sustainable,” explained Amy Kirwan, Burnet Institute’s Senior Research Fellow, Social Impact and Innovation, who is leading the project. 

“We draw on the things we learned with the pandemic, take those lessons forward and think about how we can apply them to strengthen public health practice with multicultural communities. It’s also about how we can use digital technology to support us to enhance that sustainability.”

“It’s really about bringing together a whole lot of different bits of expertise and seeing what we can create together.”

What will VOICE deliver? 

VOICE is starting with three projects: one with the Muslim community in Darebin LGA, and two in partnership with the Centre for Multicultural Youth, connecting with Pasifika and Sudanese young people in Melbourne’s south-east. 

Community partners and researchers will gather data to identify priorities and unmet needs, whether that’s in mental health, education, employment or other areas. Several workshops continue to be held with community members and Monash University’s Action Lab to co-design useful programs and tools. 

These tools and other resources will be available through the VOICE’s open-access online platform which can be used by support workers, health researchers, community leaders, policy makers and others. 


Building stronger connections and skills is at the heart of the VOICE project. 

“Everyone has got something to teach everybody else,” said Ms Kirwan. “It isn’t about researchers teaching community organisations how to do a certain thing or government teaching researchers.

Communities know what’s happening in their communities, so it’s sharing that information with the right parties at the right time to get responses resourced appropriately. 

“We want to connect government better with communities.Amy Kirwan, Burnet Institute Senior Research Fellow, Social Impact and Innovation

“At Burnet Institute, we’re subject matter experts on public health research. But the community organisations we’re partnering with are subject matter experts on their communities and their communities’ needs. 

“It’s really about bringing together a whole lot of different bits of expertise and seeing what we can create together.”

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How VOICE can assist multicultural communities

Victoria is Australia’s most culturally diverse state, with almost one-quarter of its population born overseas. 

But multicultural communities face barriers in accessing mainstream supports including language, knowledge of Australia’s health systems, and their visa status. 

It’s a situation seen often by Dylan Wolfgramm, an Itaukei Fijian (Indigenous Fijian) who is Pasifika Project Officer for VOICE and a bicultural worker with Le Mana Pasifika at the Centre for Multicultural Youth. 

Many Pasifika people who have come to Australia on a Special Category Visa cannot access Centrelink payments, so think they can’t get a Medicare card even though they may be eligible. 

“Community members have not really been educated or informed on how to access these services,” Mr Wolfgramm said. “They don’t know they can get a Medicare card. They don’t know their child born here becomes a citizen after 10 years living in Australia. 

“There is a lot of information that the community is just not aware of. And it’s not something we’ve seen focused on by service providers and government. And that’s something, hopefully, this VOICE project can change.” 

He also sees an urgent need for a digital tool that maps mainstream service providers who can assist individuals regardless of a Medicare card or immigration status. 

He recalls having to work through a spreadsheet of 400 health providers, phoning each individually, to find out if they could offer services to a client. 

“It was very time-consuming and not something you’d think you’d have to do in 2022,” he said. 

“I hope it can be a tool where workers like myself from a multicultural community, or community members, can connect directly to service providers, and not just go through Google. 

“It can be a first step in making things easier.”