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How Indigenous communities got in front of the pandemic

Apr 28, 2020 • 13m 04s

Remote Aboriginal communities across Australia reacted swiftly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak, reflecting the disproportionate burden these communities carry when it comes to infectious disease. Today, Amy McQuire on the pandemic and self-determination.

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How Indigenous communities got in front of the pandemic

211 • Apr 28, 2020

How Indigenous communities got in front of the pandemic

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Remote Aboriginal communities across Australia reacted swiftly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Their response reflects the disproportionate burden these communities often carry when it comes to infectious disease.

Today: Amy McQuire on the pandemic and self-determination.

**

RUBY:

Amy - you've been speaking to people managing the response to Covid-19 in remote communities. Could you start by telling me about the experience of infectious disease in Indigenous communities since colonisation?

AMY:

Yeah. So basically the first fleet came in for the first time. Boats came to these shores. Aboriginal people had to deal with introduced diseases.

Back then, the infectious disease, the things like smallpox. And there's still a lot of conjecture today around whether that was introduced deliberately, but it had the effect of killing many, many Aboriginal people.

RUBY:

Amy McQuire wrote about the Covid-19 response in remote communities for The Saturday Paper.

AMY:

But obviously, there's been other epidemics than diseases that have devastated Aboriginal communities. The most notable of which was the Spanish flu in 1919, which had devastated Australia as a whole, but particularly Aboriginal people where some communities have to head up to like a 50 percent mortality rate.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Out of the 600 people who lived here at Barambah at the time, according to the government medical reports, there was only ten fit people, so the flu had affected 590 of the 600.

AMY:

We've had other more recent pandemics like swine flu in 2009, in which Aboriginal people made up about eleven percent of cases in Australia.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Health officials confirmed a 26 year old man from a remote community in WA as Australia’s swine flu victim.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Health workers say the death magnifies the huge gap in health standards between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

AMY:

So we know that when it comes to infectious diseases, Aboriginal people are disproportionately affected. Not a lot of Australians know this history, but Aboriginal people know this history and we remember this history.

RUBY:

And talk to me a bit about discrimination, the tangible ways that indigenous people are discriminated against that means that they have historically borne this disproportionate burden when it comes to infectious disease.

AMY:

So there's a whole host of reasons why we're disproportionately impacted by issues like Covid-19. They're not unsolvable issues, but they are particularly highlighted in the current situation we're facing around Covid-19 and the pandemic and we know that we aren't all equal in this. There are reasons why Aboriginal people are potentially going to be harder hit. We are left with higher rates of chronic disease, higher mortality and particularly a lack of access to health services. But it's not just in relation to health.

For example, housing is a huge one. We have higher rates of overcrowding and also higher rates of homelessness. How do you socially isolate in an overcrowded house?

RUBY:

So at the start of this outbreak, while governments were debating their response to Covid-19, what was happening in remote communities?

AMY:

Around February, March, a lot of communities just started closing down. They didn't wait for government. They said not we're looking down at our borders. We're not going to let this get in.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Local councils have taken it upon themselves to implement protective measure with Cape York self-imposing a coronavirus lockdown to protect its most vulnerable communities.

AMY:

So by the time the government was actually putting in place restrictions on visiting remote indigenous communities under the Biosecurity Act, a lot of mob had already done it. But a lot of them were already putting in not only the order restrictions, but also their local action plans about what would happen if Covid-19 actually got in.

You know, the mob at in APY lands were the first, WA communities, land councils. They've all done their part.

And Dr Mark Wenitong, from Apunipima Cape York Health Council, actually said, you know, particularly in his region in the Cape, it was the best evidence-based public health response he'd seen even better than the government.

Archival tape -- Wenitong:

Very very quick response by lots of our communities and well before the biosecurity act came into being, so just got in faster than others and most of the mainstream public health including at a national and state policy level. So smart responses I think by our communities and well supported by our community-controlled health organisations.

AMY:

It's very interesting to look at the way Aboriginal leadership and communities and the health sector have actually been able to deal in a crisis and it really shows what can happen and when Aboriginal mob are in control.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Amy, we're talking about the response by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to the Covid-19 outbreak. Can you talk to me about some of the strengths that these organisations have when it comes to protecting their own communities?

AMY:

Yeah, definitely. I mean, one of the main strengths is that the mob working in Aboriginal community-controlled health sector know their communities, they know their people and they have lived experience of these issues.

The really interesting thing about comprehensive primary health care is that, you know, it's not just looking at an issue of medical care. You're looking at it as a whole. So you're looking at not just what is bringing the person to the clinician today. You're looking at all of the issues around socio-economic issues and determinants as well.

So because of this Aboriginal community-controlled health care is actually uniquely set up to deal with helping protect communities from Covid-19 with all the issues that are going to come up around Covid-19.

By the time Australia got its first coronavirus case, for example, Apunipima Cape York Health Council, which represents about eleven Cape York communities, delivers service to Adams, had started actually doing public health messages.

Archival tape -- Dr Wenitong:

Currently once again we have no confirmed cases in the Cape or Torres of coronavirus infections, we are ramping up our testing now so we may find that in the future we do have people, so it’s really important we don’t take our foot off the pedal now.

AMY:

And if you look on any Facebook or social media, sort of or land councils around the country see all of these amazing health promotion messages, I'll give an example of the Northern Land Council who's not, it's not their role to deliver public health messaging. They actually translated Covid-19 messaging into 18 different languages very, very quickly.

[Mixed language recordings plays]

AMY:

So that's being disseminated across social media and getting straight to Aboriginal communities on the ground.

I spoke to Pat Turner, who's the head of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health organization, and she actually highlighted the critical importance of the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector.

Archival tape -- Pat Turner:

If this virus gets into communities it will be absolute devastation.

AMY:

She told me that they've been out there for months and have been better prepared than the state health systems, but they're doing it all on the smell of an oily rag. They have no funds to do this.

Archival tape -- Pat Turner:

My sector has acted promptly and we continue to work with the commonwealth federal department, but we need the resources and we need the equipment.

AMY:

Aboriginal controlled health organizations were only given 15 million dollars to specifically deal with Covid-19 responses. You know, they add that they have the skills, but they're not being funded, they don't have the infrastructure to actually do this.

RUBY:

So you’ve outlined the benefits of communities self quarantining like this - are there any problems that arise with this approach?

AMY:

There's so many challenges. Just over the past couple of weeks there's been the issue that arisen around food security in remote communities.

So there are anecdotal reports of families having to leave their communities and drive along the back roads to regional centers because either they can't afford the food and then the community, they don’t have access to proper food out there. So there's real food security issues at the moment.

And also just the fact, you know, our mob have higher rates of chronic disease. also the ability to continue to provide that primary health care in a time of crisis and particularly to remote communities. And there's a worry there that potentially, if the restrictions are eased in the cities, that they could potentially still be a danger in remote communities is still an ongoing issue.

So it's not over yet. And, you know, it's important that mobs still stay vigilant, but also that what is happening in the sector at the moment is recognized.

RUBY:

Amy, the response to the crisis that you've outlined seems to show the benefits of self-determination. Can you talk to me a bit more about that and your ideas around, you know, whether you see this as a blueprint for other issues that affect the lives of Aboriginal people living in these communities.

AMY:

Yeah, I mean, the Australian government is supposed to have had a policy of self-determination for about 40 years now, but we haven't seen that in practice.

But for me, particularly, sovereignty is about control over our own lives. So I think what Covid-19 is showing us is that we're capable when we have the strength, that we have the knowledge and we have the expertise in these communities already in order to run our own lives.

The other thing I think it really shows is leadership. Ever since the abolition of ATSIC, there's been this belief that blackfellas don't have strong leadership and we've never been really given a chance to show that.

This isn't just a ‘saving the blacks’ narrative. It's not about who's going to protect poor black communities. We can protect ourselves. And that needs to be acknowledged. It's not just our own communities. It's our country and it's our people.

And that's really important because ever since the first smallpox epidemic in our communities was brought across, from the first fleet, there have been attempts to completely wipe us from this country. And we know the reason behind that.

So for us, this isn't just our health. This is about saying that, you know, we are sovereign people. We exist on this land. I hope it really shows that you mob in this land, in this country, all across the country, know how we can best protect ourselves and that self-determination, action, and we’re not waiting around. We're doing it.

RUBY:

Amy, thanks so much for talking to me.

AMY:

Thank you.

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**

RUBY:

Also in the news...

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced Covid-19 is "currently" eliminated from the country.

Ardern said there was no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand, and the country had recorded fewer than ten new infections each day for the past week.

The news comes as the country yesterday eased some of it's tough lockdown measures, with some non-essential businesses reopening.

In NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian is also set to ease Covid-19 restrictions in stages, with rollbacks to be announced twice a month.

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy announced he expected more than two million Australians to have downloaded the federal government’s coronavirus contact tracing app by this morning.

Health Minister Greg Hunt earlier revealed the app had been downloaded more than one million times in the 12 hours since it was released on Sunday night.

**

And in the US, New York has begun Covid-19 antibody tests for front-line healthcare workers.

The screening program will examine whether doctors and nurses working with infected patients have been contracting Covid-19 without showing any symptoms.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Remote Aboriginal communities across Australia reacted swiftly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak. Their response reflects the disproportionate burden these communities often carry when it comes to infectious disease. Today, Amy McQuire on the pandemic and self-determination.

Guest: Darumbal/South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire.

Background reading:

Aboriginal community health’s success with Covid-19 in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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211: How Indigenous communities got in front of the pandemic