• South Australian Police stopping vehicles near the SA border 5kms east of Pinnaroo, South Australia.| (AAP Image/Kelly Barnes) (AAP)Source: AAP
As Indigenous communities implement measures to protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19, academics and peak bodies say the pandemic should bring into sharp focus the importance of closing the gap in Indigenous health.
Keira Jenkins

24 Mar 2020 - 9:41 PM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2020 - 3:53 PM

While strict measures have been put in place to protect remote communities in Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland from the Coronavirus pandemic, there are concerns for remote and regional communities in western New South Wales, northern Victoria and Indigenous people living in urban centres.

SNAICC, the peak body for Indigenous children, last week called for early intervention measures to be implemented against COVID-19 for Indigenous children and families.

Now, SNAICC CEO RIchard Weston said the country is past 'early intervention'. He said it is good to see many remote communities taking strong measures to restrict travel in and out of the community, but he still has concerns for communities who can't stop travellers from entering.

"It's hard to know what has been done in these communities, but we are trying to flag that there is great risk in places like Broken Hill in western NSW," he told NITV News.

"In the Northern Territory, in South Australia they're saying 'no one can come into these communities', but there are highways running through Broken Hill. They can't really close the town.

"There doesn't seem to be as strong planning for regional communities as there has been in places like the Northern Territory, but it seems that we do need to stop people from stopping in these towns, because the population there is still vulnerable.

"We've seen people asked not to fly, but I think the same needs to be applied to road travel too.

"If the virus gets into a community in western NSW, where there are the same issues of overcrowded housing as in other remote communities, it would be very difficult to control the spread of the virus."

'Need to do much better'

Mr Weston said SNAICC called for action on COVID-19 on Close the Gap day last week, and COVID-19 has brought into focus the importance of 'closing the gap' in Indigenous health.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted what is happening now," he said.

"But it does highlight the vulnerability of our communities. It just sharpens our focus on the need to improve outcomes - health and education outcomes - for our people, our children.

"These health issues will still be with us once the pandemic is over. Right now our focus is on how much damage this cause, how much more grief our communities will have to deal with.

"This will bring into sharp focus the importance of closing the gap."

POCHE Centre for Indigenous Health director James Ward agreed, saying COVID-19 shows that we "need to do much better" to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"We need to do much better overall," he said.

"We really need to address the elephant in the room, which is overcrowding in houses in our communities."

'Much better position'

Professor Ward said while it is important to focus on remote communities during an emergency like this, he would like to see measures to make sure urban and regional communities are protected from the virus.

"Border closures will help mitigate the risk of this virus in remote communities," he said.

"But there's still a shortage of personal protective equipment. So far there have been very few among Indigenous people.

"We're in a much better position to protect our communities than we were last week but there's still a lot of work to do to mitigate the risk.

"We now have to make sure our urban and regional communities are safe too."

Despite his concerns, Professor Ward said we've learnt from past pandemics and are in a "much better spot" than we were in 2009, during the Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic.

"There's a lot of work to do," he said.

"Aboriginal people are still more vulnerable to these pandemics but a lot has been learnt. There were a lot of papers published after the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and we have learnt from that."

NACCHO CEO Pat Turner said it is up to governments to address the social determinants of health to reduce the vulnerability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to diseases like COVID-19.

"Every government needs to work in full partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," she said.

"They have to address all the social determinants of health for Indigenous people no matter where they live, whether that's in remote communities, in regional areas, small country towns, big regional centres or big cities."

'Do the right thing'

But Ms Turner said she is pleased that governments have acted quickly to prevent this pandemic from devastating Indigenous communities, especially remote communities.

She said, now people must stop any travel to make sure our communities are safe.

"The state, territory and federal governments all acted quickly in making those arrangements," Ms Turner said.

"Now people need to stop travelling in and out of the communities, you just can't do it. We absolutely have to be social distancing to achieve the best outcomes in our communities.

"It's about handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It's essential that we try not to touch our face - we do it about 25 times in an hour  - and when we do we need to wash our hands.

"If we cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue and put it in a closed bin - not just an open bin, but it has to be sealed. 

"Listen to the health advice, tune in to the TV or the radio for the latest information being delivered to our communities."

Mr Weston said he hopes people are also doing all they can on an individual level to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"I hope everyone is doing the right thing," he said.

"I hope everyone is keeping their social distance and washing their hands, staying home and staying safe.

"I hope we can come out the other end of this soon - hopefully sooner than we're all predicting."

OPINION: When inaction can become genocide
OPINION: For courageous leadership and foresight, again, Australia has been left wanting, writes Thomas Mayor.