Pastor Ray Minniecon, a priest in the Redferna community, recently filmed a compelling video urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Pastor Minniecon saw the simple act of vaccination as an act of love for family and community, encouraging everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.
During the pandemic, Aboriginal communities faced many barriers to accessing vaccines and culturally safe health care. However, for some communities, access to health services is a struggle that predates the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous peoples have faced exclusion from government decision-making for decades, resulting in poor and inappropriate housing and service provision, which affected their health.
This did not change when the Commonwealth government declared Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islans a priority community during the initial introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Aboriginal communities have struggled to gain access to the vaccine. Some were also concerned about inconsistent reports of the vaccine from the federal and state governments.
All of this has contributed to a lack of confidence in governments in ensuring that the rights and needs of indigenous peoples and communities are respected.
Of great concern is the current level of vaccination in society for young children, the elderly and others who are not eligible or unable to get vaccinated. These people can face COVID infection and other serious illnesses.
Read More: Whiteness During COVID: Australia’s Health Services Continue Leaving Vulnerable Communities Behind
Vulnerable communities take the lead
Communities recognized the threat of this outbreak early, with measures such as developing a pandemic response plan (Apunipima, January 2020) and developing appropriate language resources for communities (Northern Land Councils, February 2020. The Health Organization co-chaired the first Aboriginal Advisory Group and Torres Strait Islander residents on COVID-19 in March 2020.
Particularly for those living in communities outside urban and regional areas, the risks associated with COVID-19 are compounded by many factors. These include existing chronic diseases and disabilities, mobility of people between communities and regions, poor and overcrowded housing, and reliance on medical services to receive regular medical care.
A significant portion of community assistance is provided by 143 local Aboriginal-controlled health organizations and their 300 clinics.
Recent advances by the health sector in the National Agreement on Bridging the Gap usher in a new era of collaboration between government, nongovernmental organizations and community-controlled organizations. Recently in West NSW, we saw the positive impact of this collaboration, with a collaborative effort leading to an increase in COVID-19 vaccine doses from 20% first dose coverage to 70% in a month.
However, these organizations, like many other healthcare providers in Australia, face significant staff shortages due to COVID workload, layoffs and staff wellbeing.
Read more: COVID in Vilcania: Looming National Shame
Low vaccination rates and poor housing conditions in Aboriginal communities
Delta’s current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreaks have highlighted gaps in healthcare services for communities that are already underserved. Some of these communities have witnessed the virus “permeating communities”.
This is what has been observed in New South Wales and many other parts of Australia, despite the widespread use of vaccines by members of the Aboriginal community. Aboriginal vaccination rates are still 20% lower than the general population. This indicates that devastating outbreaks of the disease will continue not only in remote regions, but also in communities closer to towns and cities.
Simulations show that such a delay in vaccine adoption could lead to a doubling of mortality.
Pat Turner, CEO of the National Organization Controlled by Aboriginal Communities, argues that to protect communities, the goal should be to vaccinate as close as possible to 100% of Aboriginal people over the age of 12. Aunt Pat, often referred to as a token of respect by Aboriginal people, also describes how overcrowded housing and a lack of quarantine sites have contributed to the spread of COVID like wildfires in some remote New South Wales communities, causing illness and death.
COVID is causing further housing crises in places where many Aboriginal people live. One example is the north coast of New South Wales, where jobs have become precarious. This is due to long and unstable lockdowns and real estate demand from wealthy Sydney residents seeking to flee to regional areas.
Rising house prices have reduced the already tight supply of affordable rentals owned by many housing organizations. In addition, higher rents in these conditions have left families homeless, poor and at increased risk of contracting COVID.
These and other problems have been addressed over the years, and calls from Aboriginal organizations for a centralized housing support strategy have gone unheeded.
The pandemic has exacerbated continuing inequality among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Communities risk losing jobs and a roof over their heads at the same time. Overcrowding and homelessness pose multiple risks to health and well-being. These risks range from infectious diseases to mental health and safety issues.
Messages from Uncle Ray and Aunt Pat, as well as messages from many other epidemiologists, researchers, doctors, nurses, health workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders, are exactly what Australia needs right now. Why? because not leaving anyone is the hallmark of our caring for each other.
As Aunt Yvonne Cadet-James says:
People shouldn’t listen to gossip, there is a lot of that in the media. […] the more we get vaccinated, the more we strengthen this immunity as a community to protect everyone.
The message is clear – vaccinate, take care of each other, don’t abandon anyone. Find love in your heart and act to protect yourself, your family, and your community.
For the government, Aunt Pat says, the time for others to make decisions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is over.
The time has come to tackle the long-standing inequalities in health, well-being and the ongoing housing and employment crisis that plague indigenous peoples.
In the COVID era, Australians must demonstrate to the world our full ability to listen, advocate and defend the rights and needs of Aboriginal people.
We’ve never been this strong. And we cannot leave anyone behind.