The general manager for the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) on Sunday confirmed that a discussion about body bags, makeshift morgues and body retrieval options from remote areas was had at a state emergency response meeting with SA authorities in the last few weeks.
Speaking with NITV News on Sunday, Richard King said that such discussions, held during a committee meeting that involved SA Health and relevant Indigenous community organisations, were standard practice and good governance when preparing for a potential major disaster.
He said logistical plans had been put in place for a 'worst-case' scenario should a Covid-19 outbreak occur in Central Australia.
“That is just a general thing that you do when preparing for the reality of it. If you don’t do that, if you don’t prepare and make sure you have places to store bodies when they pass away … you’re being negligent,” he said.
That is just a general thing that you do when preparing for the reality of it.
Mr King said other communicable diseases may linger around human or animal tissue following a potential major disaster, which could make a bad situation worse.
“It’s very dangerous for people on the ground that have to physically go out there and do this work,” he said.
“We can’t have bodies stacked up in the yard because we have no cool areas to keep them. We don’t have that luxury. We didn’t have a morgue here. We have none of that.”
Mr King said that typical logistics and preparation for such a potential disaster involved four stages, involving prevention, mitigation, response and recovery.
He said currently the APY Lands were in the 'mitigation' phase and said he did not expect to enter the 'recovery' phase for another six months.
Across Australia, the state and territory governments have implemented heavy new restrictions regarding travel into and between remote Indigenous communities in recent days to stop, or slow, the spread of COVID-19.
Last week, new areas were designated across the states and territories under the Biosecurity Act 2015 that now require a person wishing to enter to self-quarantine for 14 days before entry can be approved. Residents who leave their communities are required to spend two weeks in isolation before being able to return.
All unnecessary travel is also either restricted or discouraged in these areas, in line with advised measures in place in regional and metropolitan areas.
In WA, as of midnight Tuesday, non-essential regional travel will not be allowed. Checkpoints and mobile patrols will be deployed to enforce the restrictions, with those in breach facing fines of up to $50,000.
Indigenous communities in general are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus due to longstanding disparities in health with the rest of Australia. While overcrowding in housing and the prevalence of vulnerable elderly community members are significant concerns specifically for remote communities.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
The APY Lands was the first remote community in Australia to close its borders after a decision made by the executive in February, a measure which Mr King said "bought a week or two" in terms of strategic preparation for a 'worst-case' scenario.
“We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and the reality is, this is going to kill people if it gets in,” he told NITV News on Sunday.
"This virus is not going to discriminate. If you're not ready, you're going to need every bit of body bag you can find. You're going to need every ... staff member out there, protected, to do what they have to do. Because this is going to test our systems, all of us, all around Australia."
This virus is not going to discriminate.
Health organisations working in the APY Lands have described COVID-19 as a crisis waiting to explode in remote areas.
In a signed letter from the Nganampa Health Council addressed to relevant federal and state government ministers, and obtained by NITV News on Monday, the council said that in a worst-case scenario of widespread community transmission, its services would be under-resourced in terms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and nursing staff and would be forced to "shut all clinics, leaving no way to assist the Anangu population".
"Under current circumstances, once widespread community transmission occurs, there will be no means to sustain the health service network. We will not be able to quarantine possible infected or proven infected people. Deaths and impairment will follow," the letter said.
The letter sought "urgent military assistance" and appealed for "resources related to planning for and responding to the imminent prospect of wide-scale COVID-19 infection in the APY Lands".
Anxieties and fears
There have been escalating fears and anxieties have escalated in Indigenous communities around the issue of body bags after a story was published in The West newspaper, and subsequently in the Daily Mail, about body bags being sent to the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
On Saturday, Edna O’Malley, an Elder from Wijilawarrim-Molly Springs, a remote community near Kununurra in far northern WA, around 37 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, posted an emotional video to Facebook expressing her concerns.
"While we are on lockdown we are hearing that Aboriginal communities in the desert have been handed out body bags for their communities, for their children, in sizes," Ms O'Malley said.
Later in the video post, Ms O'Malley questions why a community would be delivered body bags if, like her own community, they were not first being aided with supplies and essential items, including cleaning products to prevent transmission of the virus.
In his own Facebook post on Monday responding to the anxiety within community on Monday, WA minister for Finance, Energy and Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, said incorrect information about body bags had been circulating in community and made assurances that the WA Government was doing all it could "to stop the spread of COVID-19 to remote Aboriginal communities".
"WA Country Health Service is preparing all levels of our health service to respond to COVID-19. However, that has NOT included increasing bodybag supply to remote communities," Mr Wyatt said in the post.
NITV News contacted the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service (KAMS) for comment but had not received an official response about its disaster management strategy before publication.
NITV News also contacted South Australia Health for comment.
- More to come.