Australian Story: Southwest Sydney GP Jamal Rifi fights Covid outbreak

One GP has vaccinated 15,000 people in southwestern Sydney and tested many others for Covid-19 in his own driveway. This is how he did it.

Southwestern Sydney doctor Jamal Rifi made headlines five years ago when he spoke out against Islamic extremism.

Now, the much-loved Canterbury-Bankstown GP is in a fight of a different kind, against the coronavirus pandemic.

“I definitely see there is a link between my work that I have done against extremism in the past, and my work that I’m doing right now against Covid itself,” he told the ABC’s Australian Story on Monday night.

“They both are killers and they both are nasty. One is a virus, the other one is an ideology. But both of them are very damaging to the common decent human being.”

Dr Rifi has put on hold his dreams of retirement and travelling around the country with his wife Lana, to tirelessly help his community during Australia’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

Eighteen months ago, he set up a Covid-19 testing clinic in his front yard in Belmore, a suburb of Canterbury-Bankstown.

More recently, he and his team have vaccinated more than 15,000 people as the hard-hit local government area battles the deadly Delta strain.

Dr Rifi grew up in Lebanon at the time of the civil war and moved to Romania to study medicine.

He fell in love with Lana, who he had met in Lebanon when they were children, and eventually followed her to Australia.

He learnt English at the Institute of Languages in Randwick and by listening and calling in to late night talkback radio.

Now Dr Rifi is playing a leading role in correcting misinformation and encouraging people in his community to get the Covid vaccine, even visiting some of them in their own homes to administer it.

“Dr Rifi did play a part in changing people’s minds and convincing them to take the vaccine that were hesitant in the beginning,” Canterbury-Bankstown mayor Khal Asfour told the ABC.

“He did that by being able to decipher the government’s mixed messaging. He did it by speaking to people on the ground in their own language.”

Dr Rifi says the federal government should have done better on vaccine messaging for Australians from diverse backgrounds.

“For years we were working about countering violent extremism. And some genius out there in Canberra comes in and says ‘arm yourself’.

“Now how am I going to translate this in Arabic? … You can’t go and tell them ‘arm yourself’ when you were fighting radicalisation for the last five years, and countering violent extremism. That was a bad decision.”

When Dr Rifi spoke out against the violent radicalisation of Muslim youth in 2015, he and his family faced relentless criticism and even death threats.

To them, Islam is a way of living that is about being a good person and looking after others.

“And if you see injustice, you try and stop it. If you can’t do it by your action, you do it by your words. This is my life, that’s the way I do things,” Dr Rifi said.

Originally published as How Dr Jamal Rifi is fighting the Delta outbreak in Sydney’s southwest

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