Has Australia failed Aboriginal people under COVID?
John T. Patten
On September 9, 2021, New South Wales recorded 1,405 new daily cases of COVID-19. This figure is in keeping with the upward trend in case numbers that Australia’s most populous state has continued to record throughout the most explosive outbreak of the pandemic. It’s a figure of genuine concern, not only for the broader NSW community, but also for those who are our most vulnerable – the elderly, people with preexisting health conditions, and the land’s First Peoples’.
For lack of planning, or a real sense of urgency or care, First Peoples’ and other vulnerable groups have been left behind by the NSW State Government, as they rush madly to appease the business sector and the fractured sensibilities of the entitled. Australians are frustrated. Business is frustrated, we’re all frustrated, and we want the country to open up sooner rather than later. But we need to understand that this is not the time for selfishness. We all have a responsibility; one that we as a nation are reluctant to acknowledge, or work on. Case in point, NSW State Premier Gladys Berejiklian has seemingly thrown out the white flag in the fight against COVID-19, and more than a little too early. A new plan that will see lockdown restrictions removed and replaced with additional freedoms for a frustrated majority when the state records a 70% vaccination rate, is a blow to the safety of those who have been through all of this too many times already.
When Europeans invaded in 1788 they brought with them diseases that the First Peoples’ had never encountered and were defenseless against. In 1789 a smallpox outbreak that may have arrived aboard the First Fleet was potentially used as a form of biological warfare. It was the first debilitating disease Aboriginal people had encountered. Some research suggests that up to 70% of the local Koori population died because of its introduction, however this is also a figure that conveniently disregards the numbers of people murdered by Europeans, both in known and undocumented massacres across the Sydney basin. However it played out, it was devastating and it was only the beginning.
During the early and mid 1800’s, following the internment of First Peoples’ communities onto reserves and mission stations, First Peoples’ knowledge of and access to medicine, sanitation and healthy food was drastically reduced, whilst our living conditions were diminished. This resulted in a greater vulnerability to typhoid and other diseases. First seen in a steady stream of cases during the 1850’s gold rush, typhoid did significant damage to communities under European control, and then killed at a greater rate during a larger epidemic seen throughout the 1860’s-70’s.
Just as First Peoples’ experienced death from disease in the 18th and 19th centuries, it plagued us into the 20th century and onto today. We were hit hard by tuberculosis and the Spanish flu, and as recently as 2009, First Peoples’ in remote communities struggled against the Swine Flu, where infection rates were calculated at 182% greater than those seen in the broader Northern Territory community. These figures are skewed by the large percentage of First Peoples’ living in the NT, however they also act to highlight the ongoing concerns, particularly as relates to a severely under resourced segment of the population.
With a well documented history of cyclical disease based traumas playing out in the lives of First Peoples’ and their communities, State and Federal Governments have had two years and every opportunity to learn from the past, to prepare and properly resource those who need significant help. Instead, we’ve seen the bulk of the work left to Aboriginal Controlled Health Organisations, who have achieved a lot, but still need significantly more assistance.
With the 70% vaccination target set for New South Wales, we must now look at what this means for those being left behind. We can examine other nations like Israel for a clear-cut example of what the road ahead is likely to look like. Close to 80% of Israel’s population was vaccinated by June 2021, and shortly thereafter restrictions were lifted and life returned to a semblance of normality. Flash forward to September 2021 and Israel has gone from having very few cases reported, to now having to report over 16,000 cases in a single day. Is this what Gladys Berejiklian means when she says “COVID normal”? The First Peoples’ of Australia appear to be an afterthought, barely making a ripple in the Premier’s press conferences, as journalists ask the big questions about restaurants and football codes, ignoring the lives of an invisible 3% of the population.
We are NOT all in this together. But we should be.