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Indigenous Australian practices can help fight COVID-19

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Indigenous Australians must be supported, and also learned from, during coronavirus crisis (image Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Johnie Hickmon).

The Government must introduce Indigenous-specific policies to ward off the coronavirus, writes Paul Dutton.

WHEN THE COMPLEX nature of COVID-19 became known, when infections increased and spread within China and then eventually across the world, many began calling for lockdowns to protect Indigenous communities, to halt the impacts of potential infections by limiting and halting interactions within our remote Indigenous communities because of the potential destructions of Nations and people.

Closing communities

Historically, Indigenous Nations were decimated through interactions with colonisers because of the common cold, because of being infected from diseased blankets with smallpox, the spanish flu pandemic followed in 1918 and the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Close the Gap has maintained policy, funding and outcome indicators to address the health needs of Indigenous people through various strategies, mostly unsuccessfully, which certainly don't target culturally-linked programs which have worked to minimise poor health outcomes that have occurred for far too often.

Considerations of justice

Therefore, the standard precautions stand for Indigenous communities, but additionally all services have been withdrawn unless they’re already working in community every day. Fly in and fly out servicing has been recalled from remote communities.

What’s been done to similarly protect regional, bush and metropolitan Indigenous communities? It appears there are little additional protections. I’ve not read or heard any priority changes in policy for engaging with or concerns raised for how Indigenous people living in busier communities will cope with COVID-19. Indigenous people in towns and cities are additionally at risk as those remote Indigenous communities.

How do we better protect Indigenous children and young people in the care systems, which are already overwhelmed with our children in the care systems throughout Australia?

How do we better protect Indigenous children and young people in the justice systems, which are also overwhelming gaols and youth detention centres around the country? There are already far too many Indigenous women gaoled for defaulting on fines, which should never be a gaolable offence. 

Surely governments could come up with a better response to issues that place our women at risk inside gaols and remove far too many mothers from their children and families.

Why are we continuing to risk their health and the lives of staff, families who visit and the wider community?

A better, more family-friendly solution must be found, a safer option for everyone. With all the technology available in 2020, it's astounding that centuries-old detention measures are the primary choice Where is the scientifically proven evidence that detention and punishment is the best rehabilitation program for people?

Indigenous incarceration rates are much higher than non-Indigenous rates, still. Indigenous child and young persons removal from families are still at significantly higher rates than non-Indigenous Australian children and young persons. Indigenous young people are at significantly higher rates of being gaoled than non-Indigenous young people.

In NT, there are no non-Indigenous young people in gaoled detention.

Therefore, the risks to Indigenous people are far greater than non-Indigenous people because of the punitive interactions enacted against us.

What’s been done to address this to protect our wellbeing, to provide some minimisation against infections for our people by the Federal Government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison for our people in these circumstances? 

What could be done? Prisoners on remand or in gaol already for minor offences, especially fine defaulters, marijuana offences, alcohol and mental health issues should not be in gaols anyway but certainly, they should be removed from gaols today. Other nations have removed people from detention because of COVID-19. In Iran, for instance, 85,000 prisoners have been released, surely a Western democracy like Australia should have already followed suit.

The Government, with State and Territory leaders along with key Indigenous law, justice and social inclusion experts alongside cultural leaders could develop a better plan to address the overpopulation in gaols of Indigenous people but also to protect these same people from COVID-19. A model already exists, it’s time to expand a successful model to meet local needs nationally: its called Justice Reinvestment.

Prioritising Indigenous health

Historical evidence has long suggested that Indigenous people should be concerned with interacting with health services. When Indigenous women have gone into hospital to give birth and they've had their babies taken, when children have visited medical services only to be taken from their families. In other instances, Indigenous adults have gone in for treatment and been sent elsewhere, denied treatment or had their illnesses ignored by ignorant or racist staff not willing to help them.

There is a wealth of information found in any number of reports dealing with his specifically, not the least the Bringing Them Home Report.

Australia did not implement a significant number of the 54 recommendations in the report which have resulted in continuing problems. Many are basic living standards that everyone in suburban communities in Australia and rural communities take for granted and have done so for more than a century of Western societies.

Unfortunately, those standards are a dream for many Indigenous people. To live with basic single family unit living is not a possibility or option with many adults with partners and children living in homes in every community across Australia, including metropolitan suburbs.

Remote and bush communities don’t have access to fresh water, to quality homes, to heating or cooling capabilities within their homes; if they do, many are paying significant amounts to energy companies. The COVID-19 pandemic now places our communities at even greater risk and highlights in capitals the wasted policies that were meant to improve the lives and wellbeing of Indigenous people. 

Governments are making small efforts to place protections in place by removing some risks, but they haven’t implemented any additional funding for Aboriginal health services. There has been no health funding released specific to Indigenous communities in need: for face masks, gowns, respirators, isolation hubs.

Indigenous people are seeking assistance with purchases of tents as a means of isolating any potential COVID-19 Indigenous patients within community. Many remote communities have medical centres but they have no ICU facilities, no facilities even capable of birthing centres or operating theatres. These communities and patients must fly to major regional centres.

How can Indigenous peoples protect themselves against COVID-19?

Indigenous communities must protect themselves first: we cannot afford to wait for governments to come to our aid. Individuals and communities must return to cultural practices to assist with keeping safe at this time. We have survived previous pandemics, we will do it again.

We must rely on what we know, we are the traditional healers connected to our own wellbeing by returning to Country, culture, healing practices, ceremony, lore, language, knowledge traditional medicines, our plants, our connections to water, sky, wind.

We are connected to our animals, we respect who we are within the Land that has guided us on our Indigenous journey from one land to the farthest lands from us. Our knowledge is shared and unique depending on the connections for where we belong and the language that speaks to that Country.

Our protections against COVID-19 are in the DNA of the land already, it’s the knowledge stored within our stories which we now should turn to. We won’t all survive this but we understand the lore that speaks to us from the Land we belong to guide us if we seek it out. Indigenous people can take everyone on this journey of healing. As a nation, we should be developing that future back to what Indigenous communities have always nurtured.

To heal and improve our waters by removing pesticides and herbicides, by allowing the growth of bushes, trees, grasses and other plants. This knowledge and connection to our local plants can help heal the land.

It can create economic benefits Australia has never been before, instead of flooding our economy with resource-heavy agricultural practices that also negatively impact our environment.

The way of protection and recovery for Indigenous people and communities should also be the same road for everyday Australians. Is there a government that is willing to come along on this journey and finally allow some control to be handed to Indigenous Australia?

Paul Dutton is a Barkindji man from far-western NSW and part of the Stolen Generation. He is an Independent Australia columnist and works as an Indigenous engagement consultant. You can follow Paul on Twitter @pauldutton1968.

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