Victoria’s chief health officer has publicly apologised after “inadvertently calling out” Melbourne’s Afghani community when referring to the city’s deadly virus cluster in the southeastern suburbs.
Professor Brett Sutton immediately apologised when he fronted reporters on Saturday morning: “First up with an apology. I know members of the community might have felt angled up by statements I made recently.
“That was absolutely not my intention. So, sorry. I have volunteered a couple of times to work in Afghanistan in 1997 and 2003. It is a country I love and respect and its people.”
When questioned about what he said to offend the Afghani community, Prof Sutton said it was comments he made when speaking about Melbourne’s Casey cluster.
Blatant breaches of Melbourne’s 5km-radius rule led to the outbreak of 34 coronavirus infections where members of five households in Hallem, Clyde, Narre Warren South and Cranbourne North had travelled outside the mandated 5km radius.
“I referenced my trips to Afghanistan, and commented on the fact that all communities across the world prioritise and care for those closest to them and everyone wants to do the right thing,” prof Sutton said.
“It inadvertently called out Afghanistan, which I think was inappropriate, but I was just reflecting on my experience of working with diverse communities internationally in humanitarian work and the fact that there really is a universal human experience.
“We all want to look after our families, we all want to protect the broader community. I think that is the case across Melbourne. We need to enable people to do the right thing and to support them in doing the right thing.”
On Monday Prof Sutton said working with Casey’s Afghani community was a “priority engagement” for authorities.
“Having been to Afghanistan a couple of times over the years, I want to be able to reflect on my cultural experiences and the fact I know that there are universal motivations that every family has: to do the right thing, to protect their families,” he said.
But it sparked an angry response from the Afghani community, accusing Prof Sutton of the “scapegoating of an entire community”.
“This further fans the flames of racism, and in cases such as these, turns racial vilification into a normalised political rhetoric as the anti-immigrant far-right groups become louder in the political arena,” said Afghan Australian Community of Victoria spokeswoman Zahida Popal.
“This community profiling and incendiary behaviour causes great emotional distress, alienation and social stigma,” she said.
It comes as Victoria recorded 21 new virus cases on Saturday, its lowest daily count since June 23.
“It is fantastic to have case numbers lower than the temperature in Victoria. It is the first time in a very long time,” prof Sutton said.
“So we are absolutely trending on the right direction. That is reflected in all of those numbers, active cases in health and aged care workers, active cases in the community and numbers in ICU and in hospital.”
There were seven more deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 757.