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Why Coronavirus Could Devastate The Aboriginal Community

Last month, on St Patrick’s Day, my father turned 70.

Had this been a normal year, we would have gone out for a meal to celebrate. Since the threat of pandemic COVID-19 became known though, my father’s status as an Aboriginal man over 70 with heart issues meant risking his health for a nice meal was not advisable. It was upsetting but, hopefully, at the end of all this, we will know we made the right decision.

A lot of Aboriginal people have been reeling since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference last week where he recommended that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age 50 should avoid leaving the house. Granted, Morrison should have been clearer -- according to his press release that advice was actually for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 50 who ALSO suffer from co-morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease.

Still, if we ever needed proof that the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities was disastrous, that statement highlighting a 15 to 20-year gap in isolating advice covered it.

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Unfortunately, we still have much to be concerned about when it comes to COVID-19 and the devastating impacts it could have on our communities. As the protection measures have ramped up so too have the concerning reports from communities across the country.

Take, for example, the reports on the critically low grocery supplies out in the Kimberleys which were coming through as city-dwellers were filming each other fighting over packets of toilet paper. To hear that some of our most disadvantaged communities were being forced to go without again whilst urbanites stockpiled was disgraceful.

Then, a couple of days ago, reports came through that the community of Yarrabah -- located a mere 35 minutes’ drive from Cairns -- had been forcibly quarantined. In this community of 3,000 people, 400 of them have existing lung issues yet there is only one respirator at the clinic. Given the overcrowding of much of the housing in Yarrabah, there are very real concerns that an outbreak there could be catastrophic.

Remote communities in the Northern Territory could be hit very hard if coronavirus spreads there. (Image: Getty)

Mind you, these concerns are widespread throughout Indigenous communities across the country. In the Northern Territory, for example, access to some remote communities was cut off early to ensure people in them -- disproportionate numbers of whom suffer health issues such as diabetes and heart disease -- were buffered from the spread of this virus. The NT was also quick in closing its borders. (As a result, the NT has the lowest rate of coronavirus in the country.)

Not only is COVID-19, as the CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance described, likely to “wipe out an entire generation of elders and many, many younger people as well” if it gets into remote communities, but the services available in these areas are not remotely able to cope with an outbreak.

In the border areas on Anangu-Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara lands, communities have been lobbying the SA government to evacuate elders into isolation in Adelaide so they can be closer to medical support if it’s required, but also away from overcrowded housing and the risks posed by the flouting of border closures. Estranged family members living elsewhere have also been sent back to the communities by the government with little thought regarding what illnesses they may be carrying into these communities.

In regional NSW, an extreme shortage of protective medical equipment has many concerned with how they’re going to cope. With confirmed cases of the virus now on their doorstep in the west, it unfortunately appears that a crisis could be imminent.

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The problem is, these examples are but a small snapshot of how the COVID-19 is effecting Indigenous communities. It was a relief when I heard that as an Aboriginal person, I will be tested right away if I front up with symptoms so that I can know and be monitored adequately. But when I think about other Aboriginal people who barely have access to medical centres and are significantly more vulnerable to the disease due to their other illnesses, it terrifies me.

When it comes to social distancing in Aboriginal communities, the reality is the government cared so little about people’s well being that they were still forcing people to front up for 25-hours-per-week work for the dole programmes even when community outbreaks were a serious threat. Of course, I’m glad a response specific to Indigenous people and our communities has been announced. But the question remains: how, if it all, will these funding promises offset the continual funding cuts over the years which have left so many critical services in dire need?

If anything, these situations in so many Aboriginal communities across the country bring into sharp relief just how badly successive governments have let things slide when it comes to the health and well being of Aboriginal people. Year after year we had to sit through the Closing the Gap report and hear about how health and life expectancy outcomes are barely changing. Now COVID-19 has provided a situation where these Closing the Gap findings can no longer be shelved only to be revisited in another twelve months’ time with another woebegone speech.

Without some real shifts here, we are indeed looking at devastation. There could be many community elders who will never get the opportunity to belatedly celebrate their latest milestones with their families -- and others who may no longer have families left to celebrate with.