The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) is calling for a calm, respectful and unified response to address the ongoing novel Coronavirus situation.

“Emergency departments (EDs), emergency physicians and nurses are at the frontline of the ongoing response,” said Dr Lai Heng Foong, Chair of ACEM’s Public Health and Disaster Committee.

“With the Coronavirus outbreak having been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization, it is crucial that the ongoing situation continues to be managed in the interests of public safety, and that the response remains proportionate; based on all available evidence as the situation evolves.

“The health response and management of people presenting with concerns about exposure or symptoms have been relatively well handled, though there are certainly areas for improvement. Once we have had time to reflect, there will be opportunities to identify where we can improve, as our response progresses as well as next time this sort of event occurs; because we have seen outbreaks like this in the past and it is inevitable that we will see an outbreak like this again.

“An area of significant concern which has been witnessed by physicians at the frontline of emergency medicine is misinformation which has been spread among the public, as well as deeply distressing assumptions being made about ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian-looking’ people, from some patients and families, as well as online, which amount to little more than racial profiling.”

ACEM Immediate Past president Dr Simon Judkins said reactions from some parts of the community and media to the outbreak were of great concern to ACEM and its members.

“It is incredibly distressing to see that a health emergency like this can deteriorate into a situation where some choose to promote racism and xenophobia. The feedback we have from members regarding concerns about racial profiling; and sensationalist reporting from some sections of mainstream and online media is unacceptable,” said Dr Judkins.

“Unfortunately, our members are reporting an increase in instances of racism within EDs, with patients and staff of Chinese appearance being subject to racist abuse. We are aware that in some of our hospitals staff have needed to be issued with ‘scripts’ to manage incidents of racism within EDs.

“This is a time when we need to be pulling together as a multi-cultural, inclusive and diverse community to support each other and people affected by the outbreak; and not use an event like this to promote division and xenophobia.”

ACEM President Dr John Bonning said: “Our health systems and EDs welcome anyone who needs care. Indeed, from primary care through to our hospitals, both public and private, all people in our communities who require care should feel welcome to freely seek care.

"What we must avoid is groups in our communities feeling marginalised and too intimidated to seek help. This will only make the situation less manageable.

“Any discrimination in the delivery of and access to healthcare is completely unacceptable and needs to be called out and stamped out to prevent healthcare inequity.”

ACEM calls on governments to address this issue and for media to show leadership and social responsibility.

“This virus does not discriminate, and an event like this outbreak should be an opportunity to show what a united community can step up and do, when we work together with respect, understanding and empathy for the impact on every level,” said Dr Bonning.

“The Coronavirus situation is cause for concern; it is cause not to be complacent; but it is not cause for panic and division.”

ACEM is the peak body for emergency medicine in Australia and New Zealand, responsible for training emergency physicians and advancement of professional standards.