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Eric Nam Wants “Before We Begin,” His First All-English Album, To Be A Catch-All For His Music Career

Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed / CJ ENM Before we begin with this interview (see what I did there!), let’s start with an intro:Well, kind of an intro. At this point in his career, almost seven years in (if we’re going by his official debut date), Eric Nam is a multi-hyphenate and well-known name in the…

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Eric Nam Wants “Before We Begin,” His First All-English Album, To Be A Catch-All For His Music Career


Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed / CJ ENM

Before we begin with this interview (see what I did there!), let’s start with an intro:

Well, kind of an intro. At this point in his career, almost seven years in (if we’re going by his official debut date), Eric Nam is a multi-hyphenate and well-known name in the K-pop industry. Besides being a prolific singer-songwriter (who finished in the top five of MBC’s audition competition show Birth of a Great Star 2), he has found major success in hosting and participating in a lineup of TV shows and web series (notably After School Club and Yang and Nam Show), interviewing a boatload of international celebrities, and even starting his own podcast called K-pop Daebak With Eric Nam. Soon, he’ll hopefully pass on the torch for that podcast to start another called I Think You’re Dope, where he plans on interviewing cool people who he admires. Between all of his activities and jobs, he flies between the US, Korea, Africa, Budapest, and a host of other countries so often that it’s truly second nature to him.

Hi and hello! Ok, how do you balance it all? Are you still inspired by the constant movement, or is it a little too much sometimes?

“I’m at a point where I’ve done this so long that it’s actually started to take a toll on my health, unfortunately. But I also have this passion and energy to really try it. Like, everything. It’s always been my personality. But I do know it’s not always a sustainable thing. Part of the reason why this album is so timely and why I really wanted to put it out now is that ideally in the next year or two, I can start to really transition things back to the States, so I can spend more time here. In Korea, there’s also a horrible work-life balance, which is why I feel like I have to physically remove myself from that environment.”

Congrats on the album! You made it very clear from the get-go that you didn’t want this release to be seen as “Eric Nam’s English album” or “Eric’s US debut,” but rather a warm-up of what’s to come — hence the name, Before We Begin.

People are like, ‘Why did you go to Korea?’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t have a choice.’ I’d say in the past year now, we have Joji, Rich Brian, and Jackson and those types of people finally coming up — but there still isn’t enough. And then it’s like, ‘Where are the Asian-Americans [specifically]?’ We’ve had to reverse-engineer people [like me] who have made it in Asia to push them here. Now we’re at the point where we have Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat, and 88rising and we’re finally getting representation, but it’s not enough. I also look at the people who are doing it, and they are very much in the hip-hop and R&B lane. When it comes to [Asians doing] pop, I still don’t think we’re there. That’s also what I feel most comfortable with musically, so if there’s a way for me to build that out and find a place [in US pop], that’s probably the goal and ideal.

But when it comes to this album, again, I didn’t want this to be ‘Eric Nam’s US debut’ — I wanted to leave it open-ended and for this to be a very catchall for me in terms of music. We’ve moved beyond the space where an artist has to stick to one genre. I think everything is so fluid and constantly changing, and I wanted the album to reflect that.”

“When it comes to [Asians doing] pop, I still don’t think we’re there. That’s also what I feel most comfortable with musically, so if there’s a way for me to build that out and find a place [in US pop], that’s probably the goal and ideal.”

What do you think needs to happen in the industry to address mental health and burnout?

“I’ll take it to a personal place because I don’t want to make blanket statements for an entire industry, but when I first started as an artist, I distinctly remember being like, ‘Hi. I need to go on vacation. I need a break. I want to go see my family who I haven’t seen in two years.’ And my manager said ‘No.’ When I asked, he said, ‘Because people in Korea aren’t allowed to take vacations.’ When I asked him to explain it, he said, ‘Well, people don’t like the idea that somebody’s taking a break, because they get upset or jealous about it.’ I don’t think I ever got to take that vacation.

And in 2016, I booked my first vacation since my debut. I hadn’t stopped for five years. And without telling me, my team booked me for a TV show called Law of the Jungle, where I had to go to Mongolia for 10 days and live in a forest. I was so mad and so exhausted, because in May of that year alone, I had done probably like 50 events. I did three to four events a day. That’s not normal.”

“It’s this mentality that you win or lose. It’s 100 or nothing. When you’re building your career, you have to build it every day, otherwise you’re never going to make it. And then once you’re up there, you never know when this is going to go away, so you have to [keep going] and do everything now. And then after that, because you’re ‘coming down,’ if you don’t make your money now, you’re never going to make money in the future. At a certain point I was like, ‘I don’t care. I don’t need or want to make money right now. I just really need to take care of my health.’

What needs to happen is for management companies and artists to understand that it’s normal for people to have breaks. It’s normal for people to go on vacations. People should have weekends. And to really accept that and embrace that. But nobody is out there saying that. That’s the other problem. Even when you think of BTS taking their first vacation in August of this year, it was global news. But that’s how serious it is when it comes to…we don’t stop. It’s unfortunate and I really hope it changes. For me, that’s also something I’m constantly, internally struggling with — like, ‘Can I take a vacation? Can I take a break?'”

“What needs to happen is for management companies and artists to understand that it’s normal for people to have breaks…and to really accept that and embrace that.”

“The first episode of Cheers To What’s Next out of Dive Studios is Jamie (Jimin) Park, and she talked about how depressed she got and how she wanted to hurt herself. First of all, I was shocked but very proud of her for being willing and able to say that on such a public platform. Secondly, this is such a necessary thing for people to hear. It should be a dialogue that we should be having, so I’m glad she did it — in Korean too, so people there can really dive into that message.”

Going back to the album, even now as an experienced artist, what is the toughest part about making an album?

“Lyrics are always tough for me. I’m like, ‘I could say that, but nobody could give a shit,’ so that’s why it’s hard for me to sit down and be like, ‘This is the big picture.’ The hardest part is to be very open and vulnerable with all of my cowriters. Like, we may have met today, but I’m going to tell you something really deep about myself — hopefully we can write a cool song from it.

I wrote ‘Love Die Young’ because I was so burnt out and exhausted from my tour, but I wanted to put it in a way that could represent love and relationships, because I think that’s what most people can relate to. I think once we got into that mode, the lyrics and melody just really flowed out. We wrote the song in five hours. We got very visual with it, like the line ‘Flowers in your hair now on our grave.'”

Besides love, what are other universal themes you want to touch upon in your music?

“The one thing that’s constantly in the back of my head and is very true to me is mental health, and being very open, honest, and vulnerable about it. That’s why I love ‘Love Die Young’ so much, because on the surface it’s just a simple love song, but if you really go into it, ‘love’ can also mean your passion or whatever you’re pursuing in life and excited about. So for me, the lyric ‘Please don’t let this love die young’ means I don’t want my passion, my health, and me to burn out.”

“It’ll take time, but those themes of being very frank and honest about how I’m feeling about random shit in life — things that suck and things that are great — will make it into my music.”

“There are a bunch of songs that didn’t make it onto this album, including one literally called ‘Burnout’ and another called ‘Bad For Me.’ It’s [a theme] I’m still starting to experiment with because up until now, everything has been traditional love songs — but now that I’ve matured more as a musician and lyricist, it comes a little more easily to me. It’ll take time, but those themes of being very frank and honest about how I’m feeling about random shit in life — things that suck and things that are great — will make it into my music. At the end of the day, your relationship with yourself is as important as your relationship with anybody else, and it’s about being able to appreciate and love yourself, your health, and your whole being.”

Which song took the longest to put together?

“Typically in a session, I’d say four hours and we’re usually done, but most of the songs on this album took anywhere from six to eight hours. It took a lot of choice words, intention, and being present. Some people go days working on certain songs, but since I’m in and out of Korea — when I’m in, we have a day to do this one song. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, trash it and move onto the next session. So it’s a very bam-bam-bam structure.

“For ‘Congratulations,’ it was like four of us literally lying on the ground and being like, ‘Ohmygod, this song will not end,’ but we got it done. And ‘Come Through’ took a full day, six to eight hours, as well. I took vlogs of me writing a lot of these songs and I remember us just being very picky, like, ‘Where are we going to take this? Where is this message going?’ and it took a lot of hours to hone it down.”

With both English and Korean versions of your songs, like “Miss You,” and now “Runaway” and “No Shame” on this album, how do you decide what to change in terms of languages, title changes, and messages?

“Whenever I write my music, it’s always been in English first and then I take it into Korean. With ‘Runaway,’ the funny story is that I got this song as a demo 1.5 to 2 years ago as a demo written by Loote (Eric’s opener for last year’s Honestly tour), Ari, who is Lauv, and Michael Pollack, a great producer. I heard the demo and loved it, and said we should try to do it in Korean. But when you mix Korean and English together, it’s hard to give a definition that is not a traditional, ideal definition to Koreans.

When you think of ‘runaway’ you’re either going to think, ‘This kid is running away’ or ‘Let’s run away together’ as a love-dovey thing. However, if you say, ‘if you run away, don’t you ever come back’ in Korean, that’s such a convoluted way of going about it — so we just made it into a love song. But those original lyrics is what we’re putting out on this English album, and I thought it made a very witty breakup song. And then Steve James went in, remixed it, put his touch/spin on it, and gave it an EDM-like dance sound.”

For ‘No Shame,’ it’s the same thing with lyrically going back and forth. In Korean, the title ‘Honestly‘ was obviously the definition and content of the song, so it made sense to keep it that way. For ‘No Shame,’ I just felt the title was the key point of the song, and there aren’t a lot of songs called ‘No Shame’ to begin with — and we wanted to do something different. I also kinda wanted people to be like, ‘Wait, what? This is the same song [as ‘Honestly’], but it’s different and it works.’ A little bit of rewriting lyrics went into it as well. I had forgotten how much I loved this song when it was in English, so I hope people love this version too.”

When you picture your fans (aka Nam Nation), what do you see?

“My fans are so diverse. If you come to a show, it literally ranges from a 7-year-old to 60-year-old. I’m not even exaggerating. Men, women, all religions, and all colors. We share this common experience of life and that’s what really binds us. I think there are points where I’m like, ‘Am I not cool enough? Am I not young enough?’ because when it comes to musicians, age is a very real thing that people worry about. But what my fans appreciate and what I appreciate about them is that it’s about content, reliability, and being able to bond over common experiences. I may not have as many fans as BTS or the biggest or youngest idol groups, but what we do have is a very particular relationship when it comes to understanding each other — and that’s what I really value.”

Since K-pop is such a broad term, where do you personally see yourself fitting in all that?

“Even though I’m here now, there’s always going to be the next big group or thing — a taller, more handsome, and younger version of whoever. You can fight or compete against that or you can say, ‘That’s cool. I hope you do well, but I’m going to focus on what I’m doing well and what feels true to me.’ It’s about feeling secure and confident about my identity and place in the world of entertainment. But every once in a while I’ll still have an insecure freakout like, ‘Am I irrelevant? Does anyone even care?’

The other day I met a K-pop idol kid who said, ‘When my team and I look at you, we’re like, you’re A-list, the top. People revere you.’ And I was like, ‘Me? Me?! I don’t know, bro. That seems like a lot.’ I’ve never, ever thought of myself in that light. People around me tell me that I need a bigger persona and to act a little more A-listy because ‘that’s where you are but you don’t act that way, so people undervalue you.’ But that’s not me. I’m a very blunt person. Even at the peak of my career in Korea — in a year, I did 30 endorsements, did all of the events, and got all of the awards — even then, I knew all of that could be gone in an instant.”

“I’ll scan Twitter once in a while and I find it hilarious that people view me as very old. Because if you look at K-pop, the general trend is for the age to go younger, so you have 10-year-olds who are like, ‘Can I be a fan of Eric Nam?’ I mean, I get it. I’m older and more mature, so you probably can’t relate to me. But because K-pop has become this generational thing — you have your first, second, third, and fourth — and I’m weirdly between second and fourth, everyone knows of me, but [younger fans] are like, ‘Am I allowed to like this person who’s older than my oppa (older brother), who’s like 17?’ That’s the weird thing a lot of people deal with. But whatever — if you like it, you like it.”

Cheers to that! As long as they put out good music, that’s what it’s important.

“I appreciate you saying that. I feel like a lot of people nowadays focus more on the visual packaging, and less on the music. Do they dance well, and are they good-looking or hot? As a musician, it can be very frustrating. Certain songs are just unlistenable and I’m like, ‘Am I outdated?’ But objectively, this is just a horrible song. But then people are like, ‘I love this,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you like them and the image and idea of this persona that you can be a fan of‘ — which is completely fine. But for me, I’ve had to literally split it off. I view myself as a musician and I focus on music — other people may try to focus on the music, but the emphasis is heavily on visuals and performance. They’re both equally valid, but different. It’s just difficult because we’re all in K-pop, and that’s why we’re compared to each other.”

“I view myself as a musician and I focus on music — other people may try to focus on the music, but the emphasis is heavily on visuals and performance. They’re both equally valid, but different.”

And finally, I couldn’t help but include a few ~rapid fire questions~ to put a bow on this interview:

First text you sent this morning?

“It was to my team about the album, that I want everything lowercase. We’re still going through edits for the physical album, printing, and mixing the songs. I got up and that’s literally what I did for the first two hours.”

Name one alive and one dead person you’d love to meet.

“Obama. Jesus.”

What is a song you WISH you had written?

“’Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.’ I love that song. I would also love to meet John [Mayer] and write with him.”

Go-to comfort food?

“Tteokbokki.”

What’s one song you will never get sick of hearing?

“’Someone Like You‘ by Adele.”

Your Hogwarts house?

“I have no idea. I wanna say Gryffindor. But my friends in college were like, ‘You’re definitely a Slytherin. ‘Cause you’re a savvy business guy.’”

Favorite movie?

Midnight in Paris. I just like to keep it on in the background even if I’m not focused on it.”

Favorite TV show?

“Homeland and Billions.

If you had to dye your hair, what color would you choose?

I’d be down to bleach it and put a tint of blue in it. Just to say I did it.”

Ultimate K-pop bias?

“Honestly, I should probably just say BTS. I just appreciate how differently they’ve approached everything. Watching them grow from these little kids to become these global mega superstars, and the fact that they’ve been able to stay normal and humble throughout all this time, is enough for me to stan. Maybe not even just in terms of music, but as people. It’s been a pleasure knowing them and being able to cheer for them.”

Check out Eric Nam’s latest album, Before We Begin, and the music video for his lead single, “Congratulations,” both out now!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



















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Stressed Students, Bridesmaids Drama, And More: An Advice Column From A Total Amateur

Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results! NBC 1. “Dear Andy,I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying…

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Stressed Students, Bridesmaids Drama, And More: An Advice Column From A Total Amateur

Hi! A while ago I asked the BuzzFeed Community to tell me a problem they’re having, so that I — a person with absolutely zero professional qualifications to help anyone — could give them advice. So, here are the results!


NBC

1.

“Dear Andy,

I have NO idea where I should go to school… I’m applying to 12 schools, 10 on the west coast and two in BC. I’m a high achieving student (I’m in five AP classes, president of two clubs, volunteering and a job, etc.) and I don’t want to go somewhere that’s all about the pressure, but I still want a high quality education. I’m so lost, help!”

—The Overwhelmed Student

Dear Overwhelmed,

You posted this just to dunk on all of us academically, didn’t you?

Kidding. In all seriousness, you can get a very good education at a bunch of different schools. And when you’re done, you’ll have a degree that probably nobody will ever verify! In my completely amateur opinion, the only reason people think the “Ivy League” schools are better is because a lot of wealthy, well-connected people go there (and have gone there), and therefore when you graduate from one, you’re more likely to get in at some fancy law firm or whatever because of your connections. So if you aren’t planning on being like, IDK, the CFO of Waystar Royco or something, just pick the school that you really want to go to. Where are you going to be happy living? Is one of the schools in a city you already want to move to and/or the city that has jobs in your future profession? Is it important for you to be close to home? How many Wendy’s are there on campus, and do they carry Spicy Nuggets? These are the questions you should be asking.

Oh, wait, actually…forget all that. Go to the school that will cost the least when you factor in tuition, room & board, and any scholarships you might get. Student loans are a curse and you want as little of them as possible. In the end, you might not even end up doing the thing you studied in college. Wanna know what degree I have? A BFA in Theater Performance. An acting degree. And now here I am, writing for a website. You’ll be fine.

—Andy

2.

“Dear Andy,

I got married this summer, and I decided to choose only family to be my bridesmaids. For me this included three female cousins and my (now) sister-in-law. My husband, on the other hand, decided to do a mix of family as well as friends from high school for his groomsmen. I had no problem with this at all.

I had a few friends who I knew would expect to be bridesmaids, so I made it clear to them from the very beginning that I would be choosing family only as to not have a huge wedding party, but I told them they were not any less important to me and that I still wanted them to be involved in the wedding as much as they felt comfortable with. Most of the friends I had this conversation with were very understanding, however one straight up told me that she was disappointed (this was two years before the wedding).

Now it’s been a few months since I got married and this friend (a friend from childhood) started talking about the wedding. She told me she felt left out of the wedding since she wasn’t part of the wedding party. It particularly bothered her that my husband included friends and I didn’t. She then proceeded to tell me that it was difficult for her to be there the day of my wedding because of these feelings. AT MY WEDDING. She also included the fact that she didn’t want to upset me and that it doesn’t change our friendship. But if that is the case then why say anything in the first place? I’ve already said one too many times the reason for my bridesmaid choices and how important she is to me regardless. And she says she understands. I just wish she would let it go. Ever since this conversation I feel like I’ve been seeing her in a whole new light.

I do care about her feelings, but I stick by my decision and I don’t regret anything. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make her feel better.”

—The Besieged Bride

[TL;DR: Bride had only family as bridesmaids, groom had some friends in the mix, bride’s childhood friend felt left out and complained about it a few months after the wedding.]

Dear Besieged,

Question one: How drunk was your friend when she brought this up to you? If she was like, a 6 or more out of 10, I say let’s give it a pass and hope she got it out of her system.

Question two: Has your friend had a wedding of her own yet? If yes, then she should’ve understood the situation, because wedding planning is a special kind of hell and inevitably you have to make difficult decisions like this one that might hurt people’s feelings. So if you’ve planned your own wedding, you know the deal and you’re able to say to yourself, “It’s their wedding, I’m just going to be supportive and have fun.” If she hasn’t gotten married yet, she’ll realize later that it was totally inappropriate to complain about this to you. Hopefully.

—Andy

3.

“Dear Andy,

I have been taking so many of the relationship quizzes on BuzzFeed but they all say I’m single. The major problem is I have an S.O. Is she just faking or am I?? Help me!! Is my girlfriend not actually mine or are we real?”

—The Quizzical Quiz-Taker

Dear Quizzical,

You’re not real. This is all a simulation.

—Andy (or am I?)

4.

“Dear Andy,

I’m not sure where to live. I live in Milwaukee, WI, right now. Moved here three years ago for school, but that fell through because Milwaukee is friggin expensive. My family wants me to move back to the other side of the state, towards Minneapolis/St. Paul. What should I do?”

—Meandering the Midwest

Dear Midwest,

Get the fuck out of there, it’s so cold! Listen, I used to live in Michigan, and it was depressing because it was grey and miserable nine months out of the year. Now I live in Southern California, it’s sunny and beautiful and my vitamin D levels are through the roof. Migrate south, seriously.

But if you HAVE to stay, I will say that everybody who lives in Minneapolis seems to LOVE Minneapolis for some reason.

—Andy

5.

“Dear Andy,

My problem is that I struggle with feeling attractive. I started taking birth control when my boyfriend and I started dating (six years ago). I started gaining the weight right after. I’m now a size 12 and my boyfriend is a slender guy. I haven’t felt attractive in the last year. I gained so much weight at one point I was a size 16. I’m back to a 12 and trying to lose weight again. I don’t feel sexy or beautiful in any way. I prefer to keep my shirt on during sex now. I don’t know why my boyfriend still finds me attractive. I have a tummy, I have rolls when I sit down, I just don’t know what he sees anymore. Any advice you could give me would be much appreciated.”

—Struggling With Size

Dear Struggling,

First off, don’t worry about your boyfriend. Clearly he finds you attractive, and when you actually care about someone, the size tags on their clothes don’t matter to you at all. Appreciate that fact and find some security there.

Now, consider the possibility that if your boyfriend finds you attractive at any size, you can too! It’s not easy. It requires shedding every bit of toxic influence that the media and our society overall has thrown at you for your entire life. That takes time and work.

But if you are worried about your physical health at all, consult a doctor. There are many different types of birth control and like 40 different pills, and everyone reacts to each one differently. It can take time to find the right one, and not every doctor is going to be helpful about it. Advocate for yourself if you’re unhappy with your medication. You may have done all of this already and I’m just sitting here mansplaining BC to you, but if so at least you can cross that off your Mansplaining Bingo Card.

—Andy

That’s it for this week. But if you’re having a problem that you need advice about, let me know! It could be anything: petty arguments that you need a judge to decide who was right and who was wrong, help making life decisions, relationship issues — I’m your completely unqualified man. Email imho@buzzfeed.com (for total anonymity) or leave a comment here!

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Doctors Can Already Refuse To Prescribe The Pill. The Religious Discrimination Bill Could Make That Easier.

The Australian government is pushing ahead with its proposed religious discrimination laws, and doctors and lawyers are concerned the legislation could allow practitioners to deny or delay medical care when it comes to reproductive health.But as signs in GP’s offices provided to BuzzFeed News show, doctors are already refusing reproductive healthcare under the current guidelines,…

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Doctors Can Already Refuse To Prescribe The Pill. The Religious Discrimination Bill Could Make That Easier.

The Australian government is pushing ahead with its proposed religious discrimination laws, and doctors and lawyers are concerned the legislation could allow practitioners to deny or delay medical care when it comes to reproductive health.

But as signs in GP’s offices provided to BuzzFeed News show, doctors are already refusing reproductive healthcare under the current guidelines, before a patient has even walked into an appointment.

Laura — who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy — saw this sign in the waiting room for her GP’s office in Sydney’s north. It makes clear the doctor will not prescribe any kind of contraception or referrals for sterilisation or in-vitro fertilisation.

“I just felt really angry that you can basically say ‘I’m not interested in seeing women aged between 15 or 16 and 50’, and that a bulk billing doctor receiving Commonwealth funding refuses to see certain people,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It is within the law to go to the doctor and ask for contraception so I don’t feel like it should be the right of the doctor to refuse it.”

Laura said it was “really alienating” and she was shocked that the sign was allowed under current guidelines.

“It seems to contravene a woman’s right to access healthcare and it sends a really negative message to young women who might be sitting in the waiting room,” she said.

The doctor can be booked online and Laura worries that some patients might not see this sign and then be refused care.

A Melbourne midwife saw this sign in her GP’s surgery making clear the doctor would not give referrals for abortion and featuring the Badge of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic devotional article.

The sign itself does not breach Victorian law, nor professional guidelines governing abortion, as a termination has not yet been requested by — and therefore hasn’t been denied to — the patient. If a patient was to request a termination, the law dictates that they must be referred to someone who will provide it.

“According to the legislation, a patient who requests an abortion must be referred to another practitioner — we expect this law to be upheld by all clinicians,” a Victorian Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Chair of the Australian Medical Association Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee, Dr Chris Moy, said the religious discrimination bill was, to some degree, “a solution searching for a problem”.

“With respect to abortion every [jurisdiction] pretty much allows people to conscientiously object,” Moy told BuzzFeed News. “Most people accept at this moment in time that there can be conscientious objection, but the biggest controversies have always been about your obligations after that and the impact of a delay in treatment should be considered by doctors.”


Australian Government

Religious Discrimination Bill explanatory notes.

The association’s position statement on conscientious objection for any treatment says the impact of a delay in treatment, and whether it might constitute a significant

impediment, should be considered by a doctor if they conscientiously object: “For example, termination of pregnancy services are time critical.”

Moy said doctors need to consider not only their own needs but those of the wider community.

“We as doctors have a right to conscientious objection if we have deeply held beliefs but we cannot walk away from patients and we owe a responsibility to patients in urgent situations,” he said.

Equality Australia chief executive and lawyer Anna Brown said the government’s religious discrimination bill gives additional rights to health professionals who wish to refuse treatment to patients based on personal religious beliefs.

She said it makes it difficult for any health organisation — hospitals, pharmacies, clinics — to enforce standards requiring medical staff to provide “judgement-free treatment, or even treatment at all, regardless of any personal religious views”.

“Because you will not be able to ask current or prospective employees about their religious objections, employers will not — and cannot — know whether someone is willing to do the job until it’s too late,” she said.

“[If the bill passes] a health centre cannot ask its GP whether he objects to prescribing the pill before a patient seeking access books in for an appointment. This will make it very difficult for hospitals, clinics and practices to take steps to ensure continuity of care for their patients.”


Australian Government

Religious Discrimination Bill explanatory notes.

Brown said the bill would “expressly authorise adverse impacts on patient health” to accomodate the religious objections of a health professional, which could have serious implications for patients, particularly those outside major cities.

“If a pharmacist in a small town refuses to dispense a script, how far should the nearest pharmacy be, and how much should it cost to get there, before the law will protect the patient?” she said. “This law doesn’t provide an answer.”

Brown predicted the law would allow “religious judgement” to interfere with the relationship between health professionals and patients.

“Patients will have less protection if a health worker makes certain discriminatory statements during a consultation on the basis of their religious belief,” she said. “For example, women may lose existing discrimination protections if they are told they should ‘pray for forgiveness’ for having sex outside of marriage, falling pregnant outside of wedlock, or sleeping with other women.”

A spokesperson for the Medical Board of Australia told BuzzFeed News that its code states doctors have the right to “not provide or directly participate in treatments if they conscientiously object”.

“However, they must inform patients and colleagues, and not impede patients’ access to treatment,” the spokesperson said.

The code is “not a substitute” for the law.

“If there is any conflict between the code and the law, the law takes precedence,” the spokesperson said. “Anyone who has concerns about the actions of a registered health practitioner, such as a medical practitioner, is encouraged to report this to AHPRA so the concerns can be investigated.”

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Vijay Roach said the college’s response to the bill is consistent with its position on conscientious objection, the right of patients to access health care and the duty of a medical practitioner to ensure that a woman can access the health care she needs.

“RANZCOG respects the personal position of all of our members, and recognises the right to conscientious objection in relation to provision of certain aspects of healthcare,” Roach told BuzzFeed News.

“However, the college emphasises that health practitioners owe a duty of care and must refer the patient to other health practitioners or health services where a woman is able to receive the health care she needs.”

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The Sick Refugees Held In Island Camps Have Become A Defining Political Issue For Australia

The health of the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held on island nations in the Pacific has become a defining political issue for Australia. World Vision / PR IMAGE A Sri Lankan asylum seeker looks out to sea on Manus Island in 2017. More than seven years have passed since Australia reopened its offshore…

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The Sick Refugees Held In Island Camps Have Become A Defining Political Issue For Australia

The health of the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held on island nations in the Pacific has become a defining political issue for Australia.


World Vision / PR IMAGE

A Sri Lankan asylum seeker looks out to sea on Manus Island in 2017.

More than seven years have passed since Australia reopened its offshore detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru. There, and in Papua New Guinea, refugees and asylum seekers were sent to wait in limbo for years, the human collateral of a harsh policy. Many got sick, both physically and mentally.

Fast forward to today. The government desperately wants to repeal the “medevac” law, which, by giving doctors a greater say, makes it easier for the hundreds still in island detention to access medical treatment in Australia.

The issue has become a defining one, and debate on the medevac repeal is likely to feature in Australia’s final political sitting week of 2019.

But how did we get here?

When Kevin Rudd unseated Julia Gillard to return as prime minister in 2013, he made a surprise announcement: nobody who came to Australia by boat in the future would ever be settled in Australia.


Australian Government

Gillard, who led a centre-left government, had reopened detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for offshore processing in 2012, as thousands of people tried to make it to Australia by boat. But Rudd’s ban on ever being re-settled in Australia was new.

The policy was justified as an attempt to discourage people from taking the treacherous boat journey to Australia and halt the people smuggling trade in its tracks.

When the conservative Coalition won the election in September 2013, they doubled down on Rudd’s pledge and introduced Operation Sovereign Borders — a military-led operation that includes intercepting boats before they arrive in Australian waters and turning them back to where they came from.

The numbers of potential refugees in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island escalated, starting from Rudd’s declaration.


Eoin Blackwell / AAPIMAGE

Asylum seekers at the Manus Island detention centre in 2014.

By June 2014, there were more than 2,500 asylum seekers in offshore detention: 1,198 men on Manus Island, and 1,268 people on Nauru — including women and children.

24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei, who was held on Manus Island, died from a leg infection in September 2014.


Refugee Action Coalition / PR IMAGE

After Khazaei contracted the leg infection, he developed flu-like symptoms. After three days, the Australian government approved his transfer to Port Moresby. He had a series of cardiac arrests. He was transferred to Brisbane, Australia, but he died a week later. A coroner would later find that Khazaei could have lived if he had received appropriate medical care when his condition first deteriorated. He found that Khazaei would have survived if he had been evacuated to Australia for medical treatment earlier.


Darren England / AAPIMAGE

Khazaei was the third man to die in offshore detention. Earlier in 2014, Reza Berati was murdered by security guards at the Manus Island regional processing centre, and Sayed Ibrahim Hussein drowned.

Meanwhile the number of people needing medical treatment for serious and complex complex in Australia was escalating. But in mid-2015, the government put on the brakes, deciding transfers to Australia should become “increasingly rare”.


Supplied.

In 2013, 92 people were transferred to Australia. The following year that number went up to 362. The first half of 2015 saw similarly high numbers of transfers.

But in May 2015, after a review of the number and purpose of medical transfers, the government decided they should become “increasingly rare”. According to a directive issued by immigration department secretary Michael Pezzullo, a patient would need to be in a “life and death” situation, or one “involving the risk of life-time injury or disability”, to come to Australia. He said he expected at least half the asylum-seekers temporarily in Australia for medical treatment to be returned within a month.

Previously, family members of a patient were automatically transferred with them. After the review, the immigration department would decide on a case-by-case basis.

The review also led the government to invest in more medical facilities and expertise on Nauru and Manus.

A failed legal challenge to offshore detention saw people take to the streets for the Let Them Stay campaign at the start of 2016.


Carol Cho / AAPIMAGE

A Let Them Stay rally in Sydney in February 2016.

On Feb. 3, 2016 the High Court rejected a claim from a refugee that Australia’s system of offshore detention was illegal.

In the wake of the case, refugee advocates launched the Let Them Stay campaign, demanding that 267 people in Australia for medical treatment (including 37 babies and more than 50 children) not be sent back to Nauru and Manus Island. The campaign achieved widespread support, with churches offering to provide sanctuary, and the 267 people were able to stay in Australia.


Paul Miller / AAPIMAGE

Demonstrators in Sydney in February 2016.

While the government largely stopped returning people to offshore detention, transfer numbers dropped dramatically.


Supplied: Department of Home Affairs.

In the calendar year 2016, just 73 people came to Australia from offshore detention. The number fell to 37 in 2017.

Although it is not government policy to keep sick refugees from offshore detention in Australia, since the Let Them Stay campaign very few people have been returned, even if they are not granted a visa. The last person went back to Nauru voluntarily in April 2018.

In the middle of 2016, two more refugees aged in their 20s died.


Dave Hunt / AAPIMAGE

A vigil for Omid Masoumali outside the inquest into his death in February 2019.

Omid Masoumali, 26, set himself on fire on Nauru on April 29, 2016. More than 24 hours later, he was flown to Brisbane, where he died several days later. Just two weeks later, Rakib Khan died at 26 from a suspected overdose.

A groundbreaking case in May 2016 laid the foundations for a legal campaign to get sick refugees to Australia.


Paul Miller / AAPIMAGE

The National Justice Project’s George Newhouse, who represented the woman.

A young woman refugee who became pregnant after a sexual assault on Nauru, and wanted an abortion, brought the case in the Federal Court. The Australian government wanted to take her to Papua New Guinea for the abortion, but the court found she could not receive a safe or legal termination there. The government gave evidence that they did not bring her to Australia because her case was not “exceptional” enough to comply with their strict policy.

In a landmark ruling, Justice Mordecai Bromberg found that the Australian government had a duty of care to the people it holds offshore.

In November 2016, the United States agreed to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.


Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and president Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office in February 2018.

After a famously heated phone call, US president Donald Trump agreed to continue the arrangement, which prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had negotiated with the Obama administration. The first refugees left for the US in September 2017.

In the face of the “unique and complex” medical problems facing refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, the government convened a taskforce of bureaucrats to decide who would come to Australia.


Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Home affairs department secretary Michael Pezzullo.

The transitory persons committee, established in mid-2016, sat without a doctor among its members for nine months. Meeting records obtained by BuzzFeed News showed the committee discussed the department’s reputation and the likelihood of litigation when considering what to recommend. Until the medevac law, the secretive committee was the forum where transfer decisions were made.

The memo setting up the transitory persons committee noted that the government continued to see “unique and complex” cases, involving a combination of physical health, mental health and child protection issues. It said the committee’s purpose was to consider the “medical, legal, diplomatic, policy and financial implications” of medical transfers to Australia.

After reading the minutes, a former doctor on Nauru, Nick Martin, told BuzzFeed News: “They’re coming at it from the position of, what can we do to keep this person out of Australia? That a dangerous point to start off from.”

Taiwan and Australia secretly reached a deal in September 2017, allowing sick refugees to receive high-quality care for complex medical conditions — without being brought to Australia.


Solomon203 / Wikimedia

The first transfers happened in January 2018. At least 33 people have gone from Nauru to Taiwan for treatment, but many have refused to go.

Between August 2016 and November 2017, five more detainees died. Four had been held on Manus Island, and one on Nauru.

Building on the May 2016 decision, a flood of cases seeking medical transfers from offshore detention hit the Federal Court throughout 2018.


Refugee Action Coalition / PR IMAGE

A group of men protest in the Manus Island detention centre in November 2017.

Some of the cases were brought on behalf of children on Nauru suffering from serious psychiatric problems.

All up, lawyers brought 48 court cases between December 2017 and February 2019 to have clients transferred for treatment. They won every case.

Lawyers who fought the cases have said the government routinely ignored requests to evacuate desperately ill refugees, forcing lawyers to front court on weekends and in the middle of the night.

In the midst of the legal onslaught, the Department of Home Affairs formalised its hardline policy: nobody would come to Australia unless there were “exceptional” circumstances.


Supplied: Department of Home Affairs.

The policy, from June 2018, stated that transfer requests would only be considered if a patient had a “critical and complex” medical condition that would result in their death or “permanent, significant disability” if they were not transferred to Australia.

The transitory persons committee would later discuss whether there was “room for compassion” in the policy.

A health crisis was building. Evidence grew that the environment of offshore detention not only made it more difficult to access medical treatment, but was causing health problems in the first place.


Danny Casey / AAPIMAGE

MSF doctors addressing the media in Sydney in October 2018.

By mid-2018, health contractor International Health and Medical Services had started regularly reporting that the environment on Nauru was a factor causing ill health among refugees and asylum seekers.

International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières agreed. “Living under a policy of indefinite processing creates a perpetual state of despair, making it impossible for asylum seekers and refugees to recover,” said the organisation’s Australian president in December 2018. After spending 11 months working on Nauru, MSF was expelled by the Nauruan government. MSF described the mental health situation on Nauru as “disastrous”.

“In fact the mental health situation and suffering is amongst the most severe that MSF has seen around the world, including in projects providing care for victims of torture,” president Stewart Condon said.

In mid-2018, two more asylum seekers died.

Children on Nauru developed Resignation Syndrome, a rare psychological illness where they withdrew from the world.


Mike Leyral / Getty Images

A 12-year-old Iranian refugee girl, who had attempted to self-immolate with petrol, on Nauru in September 2018.

BuzzFeed News reported, and MSF later confirmed, that a number of children held on Nauru had developed the condition, which doctors liken to “going into hibernation”. Children with the condition withdraw from the world, cease eating, drinking, speaking, and using the toilet, and fall into a seemingly comatose state.

Revelations in the media and the courts meant the Kids Off Nauru campaign gathered pace in the last months of 2018.


News Corp

The front page of the Sunday Telegraph on October 28, 2018.


Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images

A billboard outside parliament in November 2018.

This is big. Page 2 of today’s @dailytelegraph, which is a Murdoch newspaper. #KidsOffNauru

This is big. Page 2 of today’s @dailytelegraph, which is a Murdoch newspaper. #KidsOffNauru

Meanwhile in Canberra, home affairs minister Peter Dutton launched a leadership challenge against prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.


Sam Mooy / AAPIMAGE

Dutton announcing his challenge on August 23, 2018.

Dutton was unsuccessful in the first spill, but over the course of a chaotic parliamentary week, Turnbull lost the numbers and resigned as leader.

A second spill saw Scott Morrison emerge victorious and be sworn in as prime minister in August 2018.

During her campaign, Phelps had spoken out about the treatment of refugees in offshore detention.

Her victory, together with the resignation of MP Julia Banks from the Liberal party because of her disgust with the leadership spill, left the Coalition with less than half of the seats in the lower house of parliament.

In February 2019, Phelps and the combined forces of Labor, the Greens and other independents succeeded in getting the medevac law through parliament.


Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

It was the first time a government had lost a substantive vote on the floor of the House of Representatives in 78 years. The government stridently opposed the changes, which gave doctors a greater role in deciding who would be transferred. The government claimed it would lead to a flood of people smuggler boats making a dangerous sea voyage to Australia.

The first people transferred under medevac came to Australia on March 29, after the law commenced at the start of March.

Meanwhile, the health crisis in detention was worsening. In the first three months of 2019, 43 detainees were admitted to Nauru’s Regional Processing Centre Medical Centre (RPCMC), for stays between 1 and 44 days. The majority of admissions were for mental health treatment and some of the 43 were admitted more than once, with 73 admissions in total. There were 359 detainees in total on Nauru at the end of March.

Although the minority government could not repeal medevac, it fought the law in the courts, but lost in the Federal Court and the Full Federal Court. It has also tried to argue the courts cannot order refugees to be transferred from offshore, but was unsuccessful in the Full Federal Court. It wants to appeal the judgment in the High Court.

In February 2019, the last four children left Nauru, boarding a plane for settlement in the US.


Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

A woman and her daughter protest in Canberra in November 2018.

The Morrison government was returned in the May election, this time with a majority.


Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images

Morrison’s victory speech.

But that election also brought back Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie.


Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images

Lambie returns to parliament in July 2019.

With its newfound parliamentary majority, the government passed a bill to repeal medevac through the lower house in July. But it needs Lambie’s vote to secure a victory in the Senate before it is passed into law and medevac is gone.

Meanwhile, medevac has continued to operate.


Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Doctors call for medevac to be saved, at parliament house this week.

Under the first six months of the medevac regime, 127 people were approved to come to Australia. Since medevac became law, there have been no deaths in offshore detention. The independent panel which reviews government vetos of medical transfers has agreed with the government most of the time.

With one week left for the government get it done before the end of the year, all eyes are on Jacqui Lambie. She’s said she’ll vote to repeal medevac, on one condition…


Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

…but has refused to reveal the condition, citing national security. Nine newspapers reported that she wants the government to secure third-country resettlement for the people remaining on Nauru and Manus, perhaps by taking up New Zealand’s offer.

What happens next? We’ll find out this week.

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