The Northern Territory Government has rightly worked with communities to go into ‘lockdown’ for remote locations, but there is now chaos in the major towns like Alice Springs. People are stranded, wanting to go to their outstations and missing the deadline. Now they are stuck in towns where the virus is emerging and needing to isolate with no tangible means.
Some families live with more 20 people in a house. Not only is isolating impossible, but the risk of infection is also massive and the disaster that was on the horizon a few weeks back is now at the front door. Infections today on the ground have been reported with connection to two remote areas where people have returned from interstate.
The government must mobilise all resources, and if need be the army, across the Territory to provide tents and to support communities with food access and distribution and to transition to a new reality.
This is a logistical nightmare for the Northern Territory Government and I know they are working overtime to get this right. There are skilled people doing great work, but far-flung outstations, many people on Centrelink payments, limited or no communications in homelands, lack of petrol, few stores, no services - add overcrowding, chronic health and not enough food - and things are beyond ordinary capabilities.
People are stranded, wanting to go to their outstations and missing the deadline.
At Children’s Ground, we are not a big organisation. We are grassroots and our full focus has been on prevention – putting in the protective firewalls as much as we can. But now the virus is in Alice Springs and Darwin, and it will spread. It will spread to those with ill-health and our Elders.
We support Elders, and families are creating Elders Protected Areas in houses to stop people from coming in and increasing the risks. But with people going out bush, Elders on dialysis and stuck in town, and families in fear, we need a major response to protect these Elders.
We have a hotel ready to mobilise in Alice Springs but they need funding to operate. The need is just over a million dollars to create an Elders Protected Area with laundry, meals and visitor protection.
Felicity Hayes is a Traditional Owner for Alice Springs. She and Lorrayne Gorey are both Co-Director and Government Committee members of Ampe-kenhe Ahelhe (Children's Ground).
"A lot of people are aware now (of the virus) and are making their way out of town to their outstations," says Ms Hayes.
"Children’s Ground is supporting people to do this and to think ahead about what their needs will be in the future, especially if we go under lockdown.
"It’s really hard for our older people and those who need looking after. We always want to look after our old people ourselves – we don’t put our old people in aged care, it’s always been family business. But now we have to think differently.
"A protected area for our Elders and our sick and vulnerable people is going to be really important now and we want this to happen even though we don’t want to be apart from any of our loved ones."
Now we have to think differently.
The Northern Territory Government must act quickly, and move beyond the new Federal measures to re-assign many now-empty hotel and accommodation facilities. They must initiate widespread testing, tracing, quarantining and temporary medical treatment centres - in Alice Springs, Katherine, Tennent Creek and Darwin.
The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of Central Australia has made the situation very clear – the support through military operations needs to be actioned in location, in consultation and direction from Aboriginal people.
The urgency to act now cannot be underestimated. Children's Ground is working with key Aboriginal Organisations in Alice Springs including Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Central Land Council on this matter. At Children’s Ground alone, nearly all of the people who lead the organisation are at critical risk if they become infected, meaning that some are likely to die due to their age and health conditions.
Based on other virus break-outs, it is reasonable to anticipate that Aboriginal people will be 6- to 8-times more likely to be infected and to die from COVID19. Among the people most likely to be affected are the Elders.
Many Elders live on dialysis and require regular hospital admissions. Many must live in town where overcrowding is going to heighten their risk. They can not return for months to safer places on their traditional lands due to their medical needs. Creating an Elders Protected Area is a priority.
The urgency to act now cannot be underestimated.
I am inspired by the leadership of families and communities who have been putting in place extraordinary measures – not waiting for the virus to hit but doing what they can to get ahead of this. They want this protected area. They are getting out of towns. They are making the hard decisions but we must come behind them structurally to get the resources in place to support their leadership.
As families move out to remote homelands they are asking how they can manage to get their food supplies ready when they can only buy two cans off the shelf? We are working overtime to source bulk supplies in health and hygiene and food and tents and warm clothing when winter comes that people can access to sustain them over the coming months.
The impact of COVID-19 on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory cannot be overstated. If it is not controlled, it will be a disaster.
-Jane Vadiveloo is the founding chief executive office of Children's Ground, a children's advocacy organisation.