As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge and evolve across the world and in Australia, Aboriginal communities across Western NSW are being seriously confronted, with rising infection rates and no clear blueprint for community-led responses to a crisis of this magnitude.
To meet local community needs in and around Bourke, Maranguka is building its own emergency management response to COVID-19 from scratch, adapting and learning along the way and sharing information so that other communities need not walk alone.
Maranguka, which means ‘caring for others’ in Ngemba language, is guided by the Bourke Tribal Council representing 24 distinct tribes and families living in and around Bourke.
It is a model of Indigenous self-governance which empowers the Bourke community to coordinate the mix and timing of services so that Aboriginal children and families can thrive. We achieve this through an Aboriginal community owned and led, multi-disciplinary team working in partnership with relevant government and non-government agencies, local schools and police to act as a hub for individuals and service providers.
While Bourke has a well-equipped Local Emergency Management Committee for natural disasters, it was not as well prepared for COVID-19. Maranguka had to quickly adapt to the situation to help keep our communities safe.
What makes Maranguka uniquely positioned to respond in a time of crisis is our experience, track record and community-led, place-based approach. Local knowledge, trusted relationships and cross-sector collaborations are critical to preventing people from falling through cracks.
Maranguka’s immediate response to COVID-19 was to collaborate with the Bourke Tribal Council and partners to develop a roadmap outlining and directing our response to emerging community needs across seven key areas: communications, response protocols, coordination, connection and engagement, human resources, health and food.
On the ground this translates to a wide range of practical and co-ordinated action.
Amongst other things it includes coordinating food distribution and care relief for those with COVID-19 or close contacts and packaging food for delivery by emergency services.
We create and distribute culturally relevant health messaging to encourage testing and vaccination and provide information and resources around mental health and how to access support. This information is uploaded to our Facebook page with some posts reaching over 17,000 people, well above Bourke’s 2,000-strong population.
We also provide daily health data updates in an easy to read and understand format, help parents to register for creative kids vouchers for online activities and create simplified flyers for hamper and care packages, with visual elements to help people with literacy or numeracy challenges.
The organisation is also represented on working committees with schools and other Aboriginal communities across the region to source and provide laptops and internet access so that homeschooling can continue.
To help ensure community safety and limit unnecessary interactions, we have established a single point of entry for all services and community and a dedicated staff member handles all enquiries, assistance and liaison.
Meanwhile, Maranguka maintains business as usual through daily online check-ins with police, government and non-government agencies which are critical to ongoing support for children and families.
We are also considering and planning for the longer-term pandemic impact and how it affects our other programs and continuity of learning. As part of our response protocols, we are developing an exit strategy on how and when to pull back support and how to capture and share the roadmap with other communities.
We are now resolving several challenges such as ongoing food security to eliminate the need for people to shop daily or move between households for supplies and cooking.
More resources are needed for homeschooling, we are developing ways to maintain social connections for households without the internet and improve communication—allowing for literacy and numeracy challenges and lack of telephone access. And the ongoing financial, health, legal and housing challenges faced by our community have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Vaccination rates in Bourke are currently around 80% for first dose vaccinations but we need to do more so that no one is left behind. We want our community to have the opportunity to be vaccinated and to understand why it’s so important.
Maranguka is currently embedding into its service contracts 12 key principles that are fundamental to its response to COVID-19. They focus on creating a trusting, respectful and collaborative environment in Bourke, including by working in ways that are culturally competent, ensure cultural safety and recognise the cultural, spiritual, economic and physical connections that exist in the Bourke Aboriginal community.
These principles are essential to our cultural authority and empowerment as we work towards independence and cooperation with our valued partners.
It is the agency and ownership of the community that will ensure we are ready and able to thrive again.
Alistair Ferguson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Maranguka Community Hub in Bourke.