Specialised pandemic training has been delivered to over 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers and practitioners to assist them in protecting remote communities from COVID-19.

Delivered in five online modules, the training was developed by the Australian National University (ANU) in response to a request from the Australian Government and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

“It’s just about empowering Aboriginal health workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioners to know about COVID to start with. The first couple of modules are just about COVID and how it spreads,” said Dr Jason Agostino, Medical Advisor for NACCHO.

“One of the things Aboriginal health workers do so well is about having those informal conversations within community … Through doing this we’re giving them additional information from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander epidemiologists so that they are better equipped to have those conversations.

“Because there is so much COVID anxiety going around, which is justified, the more information you have and the more you feel that your community is in control, that you’re in control of what may happen—that does go a long way to relaxing that anxiety.”

Epidemiologist at the ANU Research School of Population Health, Alyson Wright, who coordinated the development of the modules, noted the particular need to understand the nature of contact tracing in remote communities.

“Contact tracing in remote Indigenous communities is likely to look very different to how we usually do it in the city or urban areas,” she said.

“There are language and cultural differences to consider, and in some places, there is a lack of telecommunications.

“Overcrowding in housing and poor condition of houses will mean that COVID-19 spreads extremely quickly in these communities. To keep communities safe, we must act quickly and to do that we need to use local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who have the cultural knowledge and skills to isolate cases and find contacts.”

Wright spoke of the importance of cultural competency in COVID-19 prevention and protection.

“Aboriginal leadership was at the forefront in responding to the threats of the pandemic. They asked for border closures back in February and March and this clearly reduced the spread of the disease. We need to continue to build capacity in this sector,” she said.

“When we do interviews in remote communities, we use the language, ‘right place, right time, right person’. This is about understanding key cultural considerations when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

“Right person—means who one can talk to, right place means where they can talk and right time means what can be shared with others. Training local Aboriginal health workers and practitioners in contact tracing means that they already understand these cultural nuances.”

The delivered training is open to adjustment and development depending on research around COVID-19.

“At the moment we are adapting it … to the changing expectations around personal protective equipment, for example. As things change, obviously that may not be specific for this module but something we will have to do in future is training about a vaccine for COVID-19,” said Dr Agostino.

“Even though the vaccine is a long way in the future, that is something we’re already thinking about, how we can deliver that effectively.”

The modules are nationally accredited by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association and funded by the Commonwealth Government Department of Health.

By Rachael Knowles