Two weeks ago, Mostafa Z. lost his job at a cleaning company, joining millions around the world who are now unemployed due to the coronavirus.
But unlike most people in Australia, Mostafa doesn’t just need money to pay for food, rent and other daily expenses — he also needs it for basic healthcare. Under the terms of his temporary visa, he doesn’t have access to Medicare, Australia’s universal health insurance scheme.
Mostafa, a 36-year-old Kurd, fled Iran and sought asylum in Australia, arriving by boat in the first days of 2010. His refugee claim has travelled between different bureaucrats, tribunals and courts for the past decade, and is still unresolved. In the meantime, he’s been on a series of short bridging visas, which have given him work rights but no access to welfare payments or Medicare.
For over three years, he worked in a food factory, but injured his hand at work in mid-2015. His surgery and physiotherapy were covered by workers’ compensation, but the pain in his hand persisted and he left the factory job.
Since then, he has found it difficult to find full-time work and has jumped between contracts. The cleaning gig lasted four months.
Most Australians are accustomed to visiting the GP for free, but Mostafa usually avoids doctors because of the expense. In March, he was forced to get a tetanus shot after he scraped his skin on metal while playing with his puppy Bobby. That cost him $650, he said. He fears what will happen if he develops COVID-19 symptoms.
When he spoke to BuzzFeed News, he was waiting on a call from a friend to let him know if he would be able to get a third day of work at a construction site, even though the work is painful with his injury.
“If tonight my friend is not calling me, the pressure is coming for me tomorrow,” he said.
Mostafa has limited savings, and he drives for hours from his home in Frankston south of the Melbourne CBD to get food from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Footscray in the inner west.
“I’m worrying for my future,” he said. “I’m worried about next week, not next year.”
“I don’t know what’s the solution for me, honestly, I don’t know. I want to just work and pay my bills and stay at home.”
Caseworkers with Sydney’s Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) are seeing others in Mostafa’s position seeking help. Some temporary visas do permit access to Medicare, but many don’t.
“The caseworkers are saying that [the asylum seekers] already have serious and complex physical health conditions,” JRS director Carolina Gottardo told BuzzFeed News. “They are very worried about presenting to hospitals. If they don’t, this is a massive issue for public health. There is a massive risk of transmission.”
The federal government has not extended any extra help to asylum seekers on temporary visas in its mammoth assistance packages, announced as unemployment numbers rise.
A health department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the government response to the pandemic would “continue to consider the health implications of the outbreak for all people currently in Australia”. The federal government has agreed to fund half the costs incurred by state governments in diagnosing and treating all people suspected or confirmed of having COVID-19 in their public health and hospital systems, no matter their Medicare eligibility, the spokesperson said.
The government’s Health Direct website advises those without Medicare that “some states and territories (such as NSW and WA) will waive healthcare costs associated with COVID-19 if a person is treated in a state- or territory-run health facility”. The health department spokesperson did not indicate which states and territories have this policy.
Shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally wrote to acting immigration minister Alan Tudge on March 20, urging the government “to ensure that all temporary visa holders can access coronavirus testing and treatment on a doctor’s recommendation, and where necessary, some form of income support”.
In a press release issued on Saturday, Tudge told temporary visa holders who could not support themselves, including by accessing superannuation, that it was “time to go home” and they should “make arrangements as quickly as possible”.
Like Mostafa, Peter (a pseudonym) says he can’t return home. After coming to Australia from a country in southern Africa to study economics in Sydney, he applied for refugee status in 2013.
“While I was here, the situation for me back home changed and my family got dispersed, and then I ended up here stuck as an asylum seeker,” he told BuzzFeed News.
As he waited for his refugee claim to be resolved, Peter worked and earned an income. But eventually he was given a bridging visa without work rights and Medicare, and he also lost access to a small payment the government gives some asylum seekers.
He could no longer pay his rent, and racked up bills for his phone and internet plans. He has stayed on a couch at his cousin’s Sydney home since 2016, and couch surfs with friends when his cousin’s family needs a break.
Peter, who is in his late 20s, is washing his hands twice as often and taking other precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. But some things can’t be avoided. A few weeks ago, he had to deliver some documents by hand for his refugee case, and travelled by public transport.
“Just that trip alone is a risk in itself. You can’t afford to fall sick,” he said, ”and you can’t miss out on these important [legal] deadlines.”
Since being in Australia, he has developed a problem with a tooth that he has been told needs to be removed. But the public dental hospital he went to could not treat him as there was no funding to cover his treatment. The only thing that soothed the pain was antibiotics he got with the help of the JRS.
“I’ve had a firsthand experience with the dental issue where no-one could help me,” he said. So when I hear about this coronavirus I get scared. If I get it, I don’t know if I’ll even be able to get any help.”
His other worry is that he will have to self-isolate at some point. “I can’t tell people in their own house, ‘oh, you guys move away I need to self-isolate’,” he said. Already, he feels he is imposing more on his cousin. He used to go to the library to get out of their hair and to avoid feeling like he was useless and just sitting around, he said. But libraries are now closed.
“If this happens to me, I'll have no-one really who can cover my back.”