• A co-ceo of the Wirrumanu Aboriginal Corp has described the situation in Halls Creek as the 'Princess Ruby of the Kimberley' | Pic: KAMS (KAMS)Source: KAMS
Despite official assurances that remote communities are the safest place to be for vulnerable people, Aboriginal community organisations are calling on governments to support Elder Protected Areas amid fears that an outbreak of COVID-19 could be 'catastrophic'.
Royce Kurmelovs, Jack Latimore, Keira Jenkins

8 Apr 2020 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2020 - 5:03 PM

A coalition of central Australian Aboriginal organisations is waiting on a response from government ministers after they called on the territory and federal governments to support as a matter of priority the establishment of special areas to protect their Elders and other community members considered most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Central Australia Aboriginal Congress, Children's Ground, Central Land Council, and the NPY Women’s Council are among seven organisations that last week called for government to support Elder Protected Areas, describing the potential impact of community transmission of COVID-19 in the region as "catastrophic".

In a media statement released last Friday, the coalition said there was "a short window in which to develop an appropriate plan" and that the group had identified a hotel to be established as an Elders Protected Area for the tri-state central Australian area.

The hotel would be available across the region if and when "high-risk" community transmission occurred and would include appropriate isolation practices and management practices. The statement described the necessity for the immediate establishment of the protected area as "critical". 

The chairperson of Children’s Ground, William Tilmouth said the protection zone concept was also important nationally as well as at local, or regional level.

"Despite the fact that Australia’s transmission is slowing we are not out of the woods. Our Elders are our past but they are also our future. Their direction leads us to be who we are.  This is about our preservation of our Elders, our families, our identity, our cultures and our languages," he said in a separate statement provided to NITV News on Tuesday.

'Our greatest asset'

Last week in an interview with NITV News, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said remote communities were likely the safest option for Elders and other vulnerable community members as most had no occurrence of the coronavirus in these regions. 

Mr Wyatt described the isolation of remote communities as "our greatest asset" and said the support that would come from the federal government to any community experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak of community transmissions would be "unprecedented" and that the Morrison government would work with state and territory systems.

The minister's response followed the rejection of a sustained effort by the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara art centres (APYACC) to relocate 30 vulnerable community members to a vacant boarding house at the Wiltja Anangu school in Adelaide.

The APYACC told NITV News the 30 community members wanting to relocate had "self-identified" amid fears that should the virus take hold in their region, accessing the required medical services would become too little too late.  

SA Health denied the permissions that would enable the group to relocate, and said its focus was on controlling physical access to remote communities in an effort to stop COVID-19 from spreading. 

The coronavirus response in the APY Lands and other SA remote Indigenous communities is being led by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, with health and operational matters split between SA Health and SAPOL.

The APY Lands and other remote regions in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland have been designated special biosecurity zones under section 477 of the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act. Anyone entering or moving between these zones is required to quarantine for 14 days, however, movement within the zones is not restricted. 

In a statement provided to NITV News, SA Health said its priority was preventing COVID-19 from entering remote Aboriginal communities and that there were "no current cases of COVID-19 recorded in the APY lands". The department also said it is considering a range of measures for COVID-testing “if and when required” and directed all other questions to SAPOL.

A SA police spokesperson told NITV News it was one of “several agencies” working closely with communities to address “community concerns, safety and the logistical issues relating to food supply, health, medical and other considerations”. It said consultation was "well underway.”

“Current public health advice relating to COVID-19 is that it is safer for Aboriginal people to remain in their communities. Therefore the South Australian Government does not support the movement of Anangu off the APY Lands at this time,” said the spokesperson.

“Movement into many remote Aboriginal communities, including the APY Lands, is now restricted under the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act 2015. This will further protect these communities from the spread of COVID-19.

The spread of COVID-19 and the government’s response to it is being constantly reassessed, with additional measures being put in place as needed based on public health advice.”

ACCHOS 'critical'

The Minister for Indigenous Australians said Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOS) played a critical role in the strategic emergency response planning as well.

Mr Wyatt gave credit to the federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt in setting 6 respirators aside for ACCHOS and said the Morrison government was providing additional funding into the Aboriginal community health systems to provide for vulnerable communities in "geographically diverse locations".  

In response to the request by APYACC to transport 30 vulnerable members to the Wiltja Anangu school in Adelaide, Mr Wyatt added that he would "rather do the reverse". 

"You’ve got people moving through capital cities all the time, so you’re running the risk of coming into contact with people who have COVID-19 so why would you want to move to a capital city?

"I would rather do the reverse. I would rather live in a remote community that is isolated and controls people coming in and out of it than living in Adelaide or Perth or another capital city if I was in their situation," he said. 

"In one sense what you could be doing - I’ll use this terminology, is this 'cruise ship' scenario of having everybody in the same place, and if infection breaks out, all of a sudden people in a captured area are vulnerable."

Mr Wyatt said most prevalent numbers of COVID-19 positive cases were in capital cities.

"We will harness the relevant people should an outbreak occur but you’re better off in your own community, where you control it, where you know who is coming in," he said.

ADF to aid

Many regional and remote ACCHOS continue to report that they are under-resourced to cope with an outbreak of community transmissions and will be quickly overwhelmed, potentially leading to many fatalities in a 'worst-case' scenario.

Speaking exclusively to NITV News last week, APY general manager Richard King revealed that the SA co-ordinated emergency response meetings included logistical planning for make-shift morgues and body retrieval from remote areas and included the delivery of body bags to APY health services. 

APY Lands ACCHO, the Nganampa Health Council, In a letter to federal ministers Greg Hunt and Ken Wyatt, and the SA Minister for Health and Wellbeing, Stephen Wade, in early March sought urgent military intervention and resources related to planning for and responding to "the imminent prospect of wide-scale COVID-19 infection on APY Lands".

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The letter, signed by the health council's Dr Paul Torzillo, a specialist physician in respiratory and intensive care at Sydney’s RPA hospital, 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.

In an interview with NITV News on Sunday, Dr Torzillo revealed that the military had since made "a serious commitment" which is currently going ahead to provide logistics and planning for an outbreak of the virus in the APY region.

"I think that's an incredibly important step from the commonwealth," said Dr Torzillo. 

On Monday, SA Health told NITV News that an emergency shipment of additional PPE had been found and would be provided to Nganampa Health Council in coming days.

“All requests for PPE are being assessed as quickly as possible, with distribution to remote Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services a priority,” the department said in a statement.

“As part of the planning process we are working to identify the health needs of the most vulnerable in those communities in the event of an outbreak, and provide additional resources to meet their needs. This includes workforce support, isolation facilities and broader transport to expedite test turnaround times.”

'Ruby Princess of the Kimberley'

The calls for support from the Australian Defence Force have been made in other remote Indigenous communities by Aboriginal leaders as well.

In the remote West Kimberley community of Balgo, around 280 kilometres from Halls Creek, the community leadership has said they wanted the army to assist following the confirmation last week of five health workers in the region testing positive to COVID-19. 

Among them was a Sydney-based doctor working for the Western Australia Country Health Service at Halls Creek hospital, where outlaying remote communities go for medical treatment. 

On Tuesday, WA Health confirmed the doctor treated Aboriginal patients just prior to testing positive for COVID-19.

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Speaking with NITV News on Tuesday, Warren Betag, a co-CEO of the Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation (WAC) which represents Balgo residents and operates the local store, said the community clinic was under-equipped for an imminent outbreak, let alone monitoring for the appearance of COVID-19 in community.

Mr Betag said the community of around 450 resident was usually over-represented in admissions to the Halls Creek hospital and said the present situation had the potential to become "the Ruby Princess of the Kimberley". 

He said the ability to test for the virus in Balgo was "not operational" and currently there was a 10-day turnaround for swab tests to be transported between the community and Halls Creek. Mr Balgo also described the level of resources in terms of PPEs at the clinic as "appalling".

Community leaders requested ADF help a month ago, said Mr Betago, after 45-50 people were "repatriated" to the remote community from Perth and regional centres around the Kimberley, including Broome and Kununurra, without being tested prior to entering the Balgo community.

Since then, repatriations of people from within the Kimberley special biosecurity zone to Balgo have been ongoing. The influx of people has contributed to overcrowding in housing as well as posing other 'high-risks' for community transmission, said Mr Betag. 

The more recently repatriated also seriously compromise the integrity of the community's already fragile prevention effort, he said, and risk adding to incidents of "social disintegration", including domestic violence and substance abuse, as NITV News has previously reported is the concern in other remote communities in the past week.  

Tanami Ark

As reported by The Australian newspaper, leaders in Balgo moved to establish their own safe zones for Elders following the "repatriations" and with increasing urgency since the emergence of the positive tests of COVID-19 in the Kimberley region last week. 

Unlike the Elder Protected Areas called for by the central Australia coalition, the Balgo safe areas –referred to locally as "arks"– are located on outstations on Country. 

The Australian newspaper reported last week that co-chief executive of WAC, Hugh Lovesy, wrote to over three dozen officials and stakeholders that “there is significant potential for a very serious outbreak to develop” and appealed for them to support stricter quarantine measures for Balgo and the establishment of the arks.

Despite the outstation arks not receiving official support and still lacking essential amenities like kitchen facilities, by Tuesday many Elders had already moved out to isolate themselves from the evolving situation in Balgo.

- More to come.

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