Coronavirus fears spark racism towards hospital’s doctors

Stuart Lewena, from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, said the coronavirus outbreak was sparking racism towards health workers.

Stuart Lewena, from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, said the coronavirus outbreak was sparking racism towards health workers. Photo: AAP

Staff and patients of “Asian appearance” at Victorian hospitals have been racially abused in an extraordinary example of coronavirus panic, including one instance where a doctor was told to stay away from a child.

Director of emergency at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Stuart Lewena, said there had been at least four instances of such racism at the hospital.

In once case, the parents of a young girl told one doctor they weren’t comfortable with her treating their child due to the perceived risk of coronavirus.

“It was clear that message was sent on the basis of her race. We intervened to highlight to that family that wasn’t acceptable and we’ve been supporting that staff member,” Dr Lewena said.

The doctor continued to treat the patient, but the situation required the intervention of a senior staff member, he said.

“The message was given that we have complete confidence in that staff member and she should remain as one of the treating clinicians for that child.”

Dr Lewena confirmed the doctor concerned had taken some time off work after the incident. She was now back at work.

However, after the incident was flagged with staff, three more hospital employees reported similar experiences.

“We want to use this as an opportunity to say that’s not acceptable in healthcare and it’s certainly not acceptable in our society,” Dr Lewena said.

“Paranoia around coronavirus is acceptable, but we need to be sensible and respectful in terms of how we go about dealing with it.”

The government says while the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 in mainland China is of concern, the risk of exposure in Victoria remains very low, and certainly has nothing to do with a nurse, doctor or patient’s ethnicity.

“We are aware of at least one other hospital where patients presenting have refused to sit near other patients that they have seen of Asian appearance,” Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said.

“That is very concerning. There is no place for this behaviour in our public hospitals, there is no place for this in our broader community.”

Meanwhile, Victorian chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton said preparations for a wider outbreak of the virus were ongoing.

“We’re going to work extremely hard on our planning … we are continually adapting to new information and circumstances as they arise,” he said.

Victoria has had seven confirmed cases of coronavirus. Three of those are patients in isolation after returning from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, while the remaining four have since recovered.

The number of new coronavirus infections inside China has been overtaken by fresh cases elsewhere this week, with Italy and Iran emerging as new epicentres.

Asia has reported hundreds of new cases, while Brazil has confirmed Latin America’s first infection. COVID-19 has also been detected in Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Romania and Algeria for the first time this week.

US health authorities, who are managing 59 cases – mostly Americans repatriated from the Diamond Princess – have said a global pandemic is likely.

-with AAP

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