Dr Garang Dut. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Garang Dut’s journey from a refugee camp to health policy expert

ANU academic and doctor Garang Dut is using his life experience to make sure our health system is better tailored to help those who need it most. Jess Fagan reports.

Dr Garang Dut understands better than most the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Australia’s refugee community.  

His own family was forced to flee their home when civil war broke out in South Sudan. They spent more than a decade in a refugee camp before eventually finding their way to Australia. Dut began his education in the camp, where necessities such as clean running water, good food and immunisation were often not available. This experience is one of the reasons he decided to pursue a career in medicine. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Melbourne in 2020, Dut, now a fellow at the ANU College of Health and Medicine, recognised the challenges facing members of the South Sudanese community in Victoria.  

“Many members of the South Sudanese community in Victoria live in communal households, work multiple jobs and are further disadvantaged through speaking little or no English,” Dut says. 

“All of this needs to be taken into consideration when looking at how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and Australia’s pandemic response.” 

Dut says trust is key, especially when it comes to issues such as compliance with social distancing, effective contact tracing and the acceptance of vaccines. 

“We’re seeing a lot of health messaging at the moment, and a lot of that has been done with the best of intentions with the view of reaching as many Australians as possible,” Dut says. 

“But it’s important to remember the South Sudanese community have experienced war and breaches of human rights, so naturally they might have a prejudice toward members of the military and police force. This was compounded by negative media attention before the pandemic. 

“I’ve had a huge number of private inquiries from members of my community seeking information about the pandemic, despite the official communication.  

“It shows how important it is for people working as contact tracers, policy developers and communication specialists to better reflect at-risk communities." 

Dut says engaging members of these communities in all stages of the process, from the development of a health response to its communication and implementation, would help bridge this divide.  

“A lot of pandemic responses assume accessibility to so many things, whether it’s remote access to health services through telehealth, or having the money to order and pay for food online if you can’t get to the shops,” he says. 

“There are gaps that need to be plugged.” 

During his time working as a clinician in the hospital system, Dut's also seen how important it is to have translators on standby. 

“There have been instances when I was the only person able to understand the patient. When I’m not there they might be relying on a remote translator, and you may not always be able to reach them quickly in an emergency," Dut explains. 

“When any doctor is trying to diagnose a patient, they first need to first understand each other. That is essential both during this pandemic and afterward. 

“There is a need for a readily accessible pool of linguistically diverse interpreters across our health services.” 

Dut says he feels like he’s in a rare position — one that empowers his important work. 

“Policymakers and senior health officials are largely comprised of people who haven’t experienced the same unique set of challenges facing our refugee community and other minority groups,” Dut says. 

“So, there’s a divide between the decision makers and the end result for a certain subset of the population.  

“I feel like I’m in this space where I can understand some of the policymaking, and why certain decisions were made, and I can also try and work out how things might be improved.”  

It’s an ambition Dut is turning into reality.