COVID-19 and the vulnerability of remote Indigenous communities

By Dr Gabrielle O’Kane, CEO, National Rural Health Alliance
Friday, 30 October, 2020

COVID-19 and the vulnerability of remote Indigenous communities

We are reminded all too often that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. It can infect and affect anyone, regardless of age, location, socioeconomic status or other health circumstances.

Unfortunately though, it can be more devastating for some sections of the community than others. The situation in Victorian aged-care facilities has been a tragic reminder of the way in which this virus affects our most vulnerable in the community. That’s why, when COVID-19 first hit Australia, it was so important — and remains just as important — that strong measures were taken to protect remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

As the Department of Health notes, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people living in remote communities are at greater risk of COVID-19 due to higher rates of other health issues in these communities, difficulties accessing health care, people often being very mobile and travelling often, and in many cases relying more on outreach services.

When COVID-19 hit, the message from many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations was clear: protecting these remote communities was of the utmost importance. On 20 March, Pat Turner — CEO of National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation — told the ABC that it would be “catastrophic” if COVID-19 got into remote Indigenous communities, not only because of the potential loss of life, but also the loss of cultural heritage.

But the Australian Government was quick to act. From midnight on Thursday, 26 March — the day after the most widespread ‘lockdown’ measures were introduced across the country— travel restrictions for many remote communities were put in place. This was after some communities had taken matters into their own hands, such as the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, which had closed their borders in early March.

As of September, these restrictions have eased to varying degrees across the country, but fortunately we have not seen a single COVID-19 case among Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities. Thankfully, Turner’s warning of catastrophic consequences never came true.

Sadly we can’t say the same for indigenous communities in other countries — for example, in the United States the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, has been said to have had the country’s worst outbreak when compared with any individual state.

But of course, this isn’t to say that the travel restrictions haven’t taken their toll on these remote communities, even if they have succeeded in keeping the virus out.

In the Northern Territory, residents of remote communities said that the border restrictions made it difficult or impossible for them to travel to buy essential supplies. There were also significant disruptions to supply chains for things like fresh food, making it particularly difficult for some local stores to keep healthy produce on the shelves.

Food security is already an issue in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities — 31% of people in these remote areas live in a household that had run out of food and couldn’t afford to buy more, and 9% went without food when they ran out, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The impact of disruptions to food supply chains would only have made things worse.

There’s also the impact on Indigenous businesses in areas that have seen income streams dry up, particularly those who rely on tourism. The $123 million package announced by Minister Ken Wyatt on 2 April to support Indigenous communities will go some way to helping these businesses.

At the end of the day, history will probably show that acting swiftly and restricting travel to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was the right thing to do. We did what few other countries have been able to do and kept COVID-19 completely out of remote Indigenous communities.

But we are frequently reminded by the Australian Government and by state and territory governments that we are fighting two battles — the health battle and the economic one. Nowhere is that clearer than in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. That’s why the post-pandemic recovery period must focus on economic support for these communities, including tackling issues around food security and affordable housing.

And then let’s not just be content with getting things back to a pre-COVID level — let’s use this opportunity to address some of the pressing health issues that were affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before the pandemic as well. That’s things like access to health care, tackling structural racism, demonstrating a real commitment to addressing the social determinants of health and creating a healthcare system that is culturally safe for all.

While many of us are just happy to get back to how things were before the pandemic, we know that we should aim higher if we really want to improve the health of people in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Image credit: ©

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