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The experience of Asian-Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic: discrimination and wellbeing

COVID-19 Race discrimination CALD Infectious diseases Public health Australia


There is a strong potential for people from an Asian-ethnicity background in Australia to have been particularly impacted by the spread of COVID-19. This could be because they are held responsible for the spread of the virus around the world, or because of their demographic characteristics and position in the labour market. The aim of this paper is to document the changes in outcomes for Asian-Australians from January 2020 to October 2020, comparing the change in outcomes to the rest of the Australian population.

This paper is based on data collected in October 2020 (immediately after the second wave of infections), April 2020 (during the height of the first wave of infections), and August 2019 (prior to the spread of COVID-19). In our latest wave of data, we have data on 3,043 adult Australians, of which 334 identified as having Asian-Ancestry.

We find that there has been no increase in discrimination reported by Asian-Australians compared to August 2019. Based on our index value (which takes into account frequency and location of discrimination), there was a 12.3 per cent decline in discrimination between April 2019 and April 2020 (when lockdowns were in full force and there was less exposure to potential sources of discrimination), but a roughly equal and opposite increase between April 2020 and October 2020 when restrictions had mostly been eased (at least outside of Melbourne).

Australians are no more likely to think that people from a different ethnic background to the majority of the Australian population should be restricted from moving to Australia than they did prior to the pandemic. There has been a slight decline in support for migration in general, but this does not appear to have been targeted towards particular ethnic groups.

Social cohesion in general has improved over the COVID-19 period. What is perhaps more interesting though is that Australians are more likely to think that Asian-Australians can be trusted, are fair, and are helpful than they are to think the same thing of Anglo-Australians. Around 65 per cent of the Australian population has high trust in Asian-Australians,  compared to 55 per cent who have high trust in Anglo-Australians.

What our data does show, however, is that Asian-Australians have had a worse trajectory in their own outcomes during the pandemic. Asian-Australians are more likely to be anxious and worried due to COVID-19 than the rest of the Australian population 80.7 per cent compared to 62.4 per cent. Asian-Australians started off with higher levels of psychological  distress prior to COVID-19, but experienced a much greater increase up until April 2020.

The biggest difference though has been in terms of economics. The drop in hours worked for Asian-Australians between February and April 2020 (5.0 hours) was more than twice the drop for the rest of the Australians population (2.4 hours). Some of this gap has been regained since, but even in October 2020 Asian-Australians were working fewer hours than they had in February 2020, whereas the rest of the Australian population were back closer to their pre-COVID levels.

Asian-Australians have fared worse during the COVID-19 period than the rest of the Australian population, and there is an ongoing need to understand the source of this disparity, as well as the most effective policy responses.

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