Clinton Wolf and Wayne Bergmann are owners of National Indigenous Times. Here they share their views on the lack of consolidated effort to protect the urban Indigenous population from COVID-19.
Aboriginal Elders carry knowledge of the creation of the world and universe in the Dreamtime, when the world was soft. Their knowledge is priceless and an integral part of Australia’s identity. This is all the more reason why keeping COVID-19 out of Indigenous communities is so important.
Small pox and other diseases wiped out 90 percent of the North American First Nations population upon contact with Europeans, and it would be no surprise if the numbers were similar for the First Nations population of Australia upon contact with Europeans. The victors always rewrite history.
We are now staring over the Coronavirus precipice with a feeling of dread because, once again, the First Nations population is extremely vulnerable because of chronic health issues brought about by grinding poverty, poor government policy and racial discrimination.
The Governments – State, Territory and Federal – are now acknowledging that there is no possible way of halting the virus. Instead, they want to flatten the curve in the hope they have enough resources to handle the influx of gravely ill patients into ICU departments, while searching for a cure or vaccine.
NIT applauds the rapid response in relation to shutting down remote communities to try and stop the spread of the virus. However, our question is what is being done for Indigenous peoples living in urban areas?
It may come as a surprise, but in the main, more Indigenous people live in urban areas than remote communities. There are significant numbers of Elders living in urban areas who take leading roles in preserving cultural knowledge and passing it down to younger generations.
They are often living in poverty in overcrowded conditions and as a result, their health is very poor, making them exceptionally vulnerable to COVID-19. This could result in mortality rates that far exceed the rest of the population and it appears the Government can’t see the wood for the trees. Most of their attention and resources are being focused on remote communities, meaning the urban population are being neglected. This has been going on for decades.
It beggars belief that many of the same bureaucrats that have failed to close the gap regarding Aboriginal health are now in charge of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
If they couldn’t perform satisfactorily when there were calm waters, how are they going to do it with a potential tsunami of destruction coming at them?
The simple answer is most of them can’t because they don’t have the resources or capability, or both.
Chickens home to roost
Now more than ever, the cynical dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is coming back to haunt us.
There is no centralised Voice. No centralised Indigenous taskforce that has political, cultural and corporate experience.
In spite of recommendations that the now defunct National Congress continue to receive funding from the Commonwealth, former Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion, on behalf of the Federal Government, refused to provide funding for reasons that are unexplained. As a result, another important Voice that demanded transparency and accountability from the Government was dissolved.
We are now a rudderless ship in a storm about to crash onto the rocks with potentially devastating consequences.
Missing in action
Day after day at press conferences we see the respective Federal, State and Territory leaders and Health Ministers front up and inform the Australian people about the COVID-19 situation and what actions are being taken to flatten the curve.
Where has Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, been during this crisis? His silence has been deafening.
Talk in the community is growing that he is the Minister for Missing in Action. Apparently, he is talking to the bureaucrats on a daily basis. Would it be too much to ask that he talks directly to the people themselves?
Given he himself is in the high-risk category if he becomes infected, it is understandable he is limiting face-to-face interactions. However, in this day and age, there is a number of communication technology resources available to him. It would be comforting to the Indigenous population, especially those living in urban areas, if he reached out and reassured everyone by explaining the plans and strategies in place for how those most in need are going to receive crucial support and services during this difficult time.
Please, Minister Wyatt, tell everyone what you are doing and going to do in order to preserve lives and culture for the benefit of present and future generations. Right now, there is a giant vacuum being filled with fear and anxiety instead of comfort, hope and leadership.
By Clinton Wolf and Wayne Bergmann