• Dr Janine Mohamed is CEO of the Lowitja Institute (Facebook)Source: Facebook
OPINION: We are clear on what the problems for First Nations' are, writes Dr Janine Mohamed, but we need to focus on what is achieved when we are trusted and empowered to lead.
Dr Janine Mohamed

18 Mar 2021 - 6:04 PM  UPDATED 18 Mar 2021 - 6:04 PM

One glowing example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership throughout the coronavirus pandemic was the number of COVID-19 cases among our people. It was six times lower than the rest of Australia.

Some of our homelands —remote communities that were threatened with closure by governments not long ago— were among the safest place to be in Australia.

That is an outstanding result and it comes, as many of us know, from historical knowledge. We have been here before.

But it’s also proof that strong health outcomes can be achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through strengths-based community-led action, especially when there is matching and continued political will to support it.

It’s proof that strong health outcomes can be achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through strengths-based community-led action, especially when there is matching and continued political will to support it.

When we are trusted and empowered to lead.


It's a wake-up call to the government

That’s the strong message from the 12th annual Close the Gap report —Leadership and Legacy Through Crises: Keeping our Mob safe— released today by the Close the Gap Campaign.

It is a wake-up call to Australian governments that our people and organisations have the solutions to health inequity in our grasp.

Lowitja Institute, Australia’s community-controlled national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, was honoured to prepare the report for the Close the Gap Campaign, in what has been a momentous year.

It looks at the exceptional legacy and leadership of our people and communities in the face of multiple crises: the global coronavirus pandemic, the devastating 2019-20 bushfires, and the mental health crisis facing First Nations people.

The report showcases our success stories through 2020, what governments need to do to enable our people to lead, and what gets in the way and what stops us from Closing the Gap.

What stood out, through the pandemic was that governments finally “permitted” us to lead; to get funding to where it was needed, to act quickly instead of getting tied up in red tape, to engage our deep connections to community.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar says in the report:

At the onset of COVID, Australian governments finally put their trust in us — those with on the ground local insights and expertise to keep our people healthy.

The report showcases what that looked like on the ground and at the regional, state and national levels, not just for the pandemic but also where we are leading the way on the climate crisis and in mental health.


Inspiring case studies 

It showcases the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 which held its first meeting in the very early days of the pandemic, raising and responding to health workforce shortages, inadequate PPE, pathology issues, contact tracing, and where to roll out vital point-of-care testing in remote areas.

It highlights how the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, well versed in the risks to community of infectious diseases since colonisation, had already started on a pandemic plan when word was first coming from Wuhan and the services became a trusted voice across the state for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

How the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress led the way in early calls for the types of border controls that have been key to Australia’s success at managing the pandemic, due to its strong population and public health expertise.

The report also looks at the outstanding work done through the bushfires and then COVID by other Aboriginal community-controlled health services, at critical work being done on social and emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention by leaders like Professor Pat Dudgeon and initiatives like Gayaa Dhuwi and the ALIVE and Kicking Goals! project, and in climate action across Australia.

The awesome Seed Mob youth climate movement stands out for me, declaring: All around the world, sea levels are rising. And so are First Nations people.

Yes we are, because we are also on the frontline of the devastation of climate change.

So why the focus on success stories in the report?


Strengths-based approach does not deny the inequalities and problems

Like the Lowitja Institute, the Close the Gap Campaign takes a strengths-based approach to research, policy and practice.

This is not a denial or oversight of the systemic racism, short-term funding cycles and poor infrastructure or any other barriers faced by us and our communities.

But we reject absolutely deficit-based policies and culturally unsafe systems that reduce us to ‘problems’ or ‘statistics’.

The report is clear about what the problems are.

The events of 2020 also exposed underlying risks and pre-existing systemic inequalities, such as housing overcrowding, food insecurity, an inequitably distributed health workforce that was stretched to capacity, and racism in the health system and emergency responses that puts our lives at risk.

The report has fifteen strong, clear recommendations to address these deficits, including to fully implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, fully fund the Close the Gap National Agreement, raise the age of criminal responsibility nationally (10-year-olds should not be incarcerated!), and to learn from the lessons of the last year on funding and policy design for our communities and organisations.

It provides a blueprint for the future and we hope to more trust and commitment from government to work with us.

We must be allowed to lead, and we will only ever travel at the speed of trust

The title of this report, Leadership and Legacy, for me is a reminder that wherever I have a voice, it is because of the legacy of the giants who have come before me. Therefore I always have to be cognisant that what I do is on behalf of community and not for self, always having in mind the generational echo I’m leaving.

My hope is that other people, particularly our allies, will read this report and think about their legacy and what they will say about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to those in their orbit. My hope is that it is strengths-based.


Dr Janine Mohamed is Janine a proud Narrunga Kaurna woman from South Australia and CEO of the Lowitja Institute.