Plan to return to work doesn't look after Indigenous Australians

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Indigenous workers, many at high risk of COVID-19 infections, have been neglected in plans to restore our economy (Screenshot via YouTube)

As our government pushes for us to return to work, it's clear that issues faced by Indigenous Australians are being overlooked, writes Paul Dutton.

SCOTT MORRISON has been regularly pressing for a return to work six weeks after the national lockdown was put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In articulating the need to return to work and normality, he regularly claims that schools are safe and children should return because of overwhelming medical evidence they will remain safe.

I have yet to actually read the peer-reviewed evidence confirming that this is the case. I’ve not seen any concern raised or funding made available to schools – other than private schools – that there will be a national release of funding for cleaning or protective equipment for teachers or older students against potential infections. The availability of soaps, gloves or any other equipment would ensure learning will not cost lives.

In pushing for Australia to return to work, Morrison has said, “We can’t keep Australia under the doona”.

Preferably, I’d rather hear a Prime Minister of Australia speak in simple basic facts and not use euphemisms about a worldwide pandemic. Or how a National Cabinet (NC) led by him will keep Australians safe at this time before the overriding need of Liberal politics should be the primary economic forward planning option.

To be able to achieve this goal of returning Australia to work, what are the supports of funding and health service allocations planned or available to be implemented for a safe return for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics identifies that the overwhelming industries of employment of Aboriginal people were community and personal service, labouring, trade workers as well as professional workers, technicians, clerical and administrative workers.

(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Which means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers will ultimately be in personal contact industries for not only Aboriginal people but also the wider general public.

Originally, it was identified by Morrison that if you were an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person 50 years or older, you had a high risk of developing a COVID-19 infection. In specifically identifying a group of comorbidities at the original time of closing down Australia, it would be ideal to identify these same groups will be expected to remain in isolation and lockdown, preferably until a vaccine against COVID-19 is nationally approved and rolled out.

Significant amounts of funding have had to be released due to the significant number of workers laid off or having their work supported by JobKeeper, but ideally, three per cent of the nation who are specifically identified with lower rates of health than the rest of the population should surely have a single plan for change in current circumstances.

At best, prior to any national return to work, the NC should have invited leaders in health and community to attend a virtual meeting on what structures and funding releases should be made available to support our workers returning to often frontline positions in community or wider social environments.

The nation has only recently suffered severe outbreaks within close contact work environments at aged care centres and abattoirs. Surely, these are warning signs for the NC that a fully-funded return to work plan without equipment delivered to businesses prior to release – including personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning materials – simply runs the risk to workers and the public of a secondary wave which may stress our health services beyond what they are currently undertaking and successfully managing to date.

Closing the Gap 2020 (CTG) has already proven again that under this current government, there has been a failure to achieve positive improvements to Aboriginal targets. Noting the report does not and never has discussed what health plans should be ensured in the event of any worldwide pandemic outbreak, let alone a revised update to include COVID-19.

Why hasn’t there been a developed plan built into CTG preparing for implementation to immediately protect Aboriginal communities? Political bipartisanship in Aboriginal lives is what fails to make meaningful strategic efforts to address the overwhelming failures within this government plan and funding, in my view.

According to the NC meeting briefing from 7 May 2020, further restrictions will be eased. Ideally, it should be a priority that additional funds are released to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander holistic health services to fund their internal plans and needs to protect workers and communities from additional worker contact.

Given the widespread infections in other nations including the UK, USA and Russia with no COVID-19 vaccine and health science indicating this is likely to remain the case for another 12-18 months, it should be an imperative of this government to ensure everyone stays safe, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

There was anecdotal evidence in some Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities up to 50% of people died from the Spanish influenza pandemic.

(Source: Department of Health)

During the swine flu pandemic of 2008, hospitalisations for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people were significantly higher than in previous years and were far greater than the general population.

I’m failing to see a proactive duty of care by the Coalition Government, which has relied on good luck as the reason Aboriginal infection rates are low at this time. My greatest concern will always be for any second or third infection waves.

In addition, the overwhelming numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarcerations and the lack of any state or territory governments to ease the burdens on state budgets by allowing early releases for minor offending crimes make no sense in terms of economic or potential virus transmission towards all the individuals incarcerated, their gaolers, or any of the families connected to the systems.

ABS statistics indicate that by the end of the September quarter 2019, there were 12,322 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in gaols in Australia. It's little wonder that CTG figures and outcomes are so poor.

Where is the developed plan working with communities and Aboriginal professional services, holistically coming together to develop and implement strong early intervention and justice rehabilitation plans to lessen the number of people – especially our mothers – being incarcerated for minor offences? This adds to community trauma, placing lives at risk of COVID-19 through poor mental health. A complete lack of a holistic vision of the potential dangers has been ignored.

Australia is at an incredible precipice for the nation's health and wellbeing. Overall, I fail to see the vision of protection and the accumulation of equipment and protections our national leader is willing to throw this country in its greatest level of risk since World War II. Unfortunately, Aboriginal people will be at the rear of the bus of protections and interests of concern with what may come.

We hold our breath unless you willingly follow a vision without analysing what is before us. This includes safety protocols and implementations and what has been stated about willingness to risk the lives of the nation to achieve a false improved economy should COVID-19 infections rise once again.

Aboriginal lives should matter but I haven’t seen that shown by a praying PM yet.

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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