Susan Green, Charles Sturt UniversityThe COVID-19 crisis in Wilcannia demonstrates how entrenched neglect, combined with a global pandemic, have created a perfect storm impacting the most marginalised people in society.
The treatment of the Barkindji people of Wilcannia is appalling by anyone’s standards and should be unacceptable to every Australian. The stories flooding out of Wilcannia of mistreatment of Aboriginal people should make every person stand up and demand immediate action.
The government needs to take immediate action to address the conditions in which the people in Wilcannia are forced to live, and by providing vaccinations immediately to all those who want to be vaccinated.
Not enough healthcare, too much police involvement
As part of my research, I spoke to community members over the phone to listen to their experiences of this breakout. Here are just a few stories told to me by the people of Wilcannia:
a young mother who was made to sit outside a hospital on a cold night, before being sent home due to under-resourcing
a woman who had police arrive on her doorstep to inform her she had tested positive to COVID-19, and they must take her to the isolation unit. There was no phone call from NSW Health, just police arriving to take her to isolation. Her elderly mother, who is on dialysis, was taken to another town
Aboriginal people with mental illness or disorders, who require regular treatment and medication, being picked up in police vans and taken to the hospital because they “may” have COVID-19. The people of Wilcannia told me they were told this is because police vans are “easier” to clean.
The police or the defence force themselves cannot be blamed. They are doing all they can to assist, much of which NSW Health should be resourced to do. Without the police and the defence force, Wilcannia would be in a much worse situation. However, we need a health and community response, not a law and order response.
Reports have surfaced Aboriginal people in Wilcannia are being fined up to $5,000 for leaving home to get food. Some of the people being fined are already living on meagre incomes and having to pay those fines will cause significant distress and further financial problems, further entrenching disadvantage.
Neglect of Aboriginal people has led us here
Overcrowded and poor-quality housing already results in poor health outcomes. The effects of overcrowded and poor quality housing during a viral pandemic cannot be overstated.
Aboriginal people have been isolating in tents during cold desert nights to try to protect their families. They do not choose to live in overcrowded and poor-quality housing; that is all that is available.
NSW Health have since supplied 30 motor homes for people diagnosed with COVID so they can isolate away from their families.
The situation in Wilcannia did not just happen overnight, nor was it unforeseen. The neglect of Aboriginal people by current and successive governments has led us to this point.
Furthermore, Aboriginal health services predicted last year that if COVID-19 entered Aboriginal communities, it would be disastrous. Instead of governments taking responsibility for their failures, some have blamed the people suffering the consequences of their failure.
For example, the government demonised the family and community who attended a funeral, making false statements and allegations, despite the funeral occurring before restrictions and lockdowns outside of the Greater Sydney Region. Those who made negative statements about the funeral attendance have expressed regret, but it’s too little too late.
Aboriginal people were classified as 1B priority for the vaccines, but in many places, the vaccines were simply not available. This was either because services on the ground did not have the capacity to deliver or there just were not enough vaccines. Many Aboriginal people across the state of NSW have reported long waiting lists to get vaccinated.
It must also be noted that those Aboriginal people wary of vaccines have good reason, based in over 200 years of history, not to trust what the government says.
However, we do not need to go back that far to understand this crisis. We only need to look at the government’s failure to secure enough (timely) vaccines for these vulnerable communities.
What has to happen now?
The government firstly must address the immediate needs of the community, by ensuring adequate and appropriate housing for people to isolate in, tents and motor homes are not appropriate in this situation. Vaccinations must be urgently administered and everyone who wants to be vaccinated must be able to do so without a waiting list.
More doctors and nurses need to be sent to regional areas affected by the virus. Social workers must also be sent to ensure people have access to adequate and appropriate health care, food and accommodation as well as programs to allow people to deal with issues worsened by the pandemic and to maintain mental and cultural well-being during times of isolation and lock down.
At present, vaccination rates in Indigenous populations are very low. Meanwhile international data show the risk of serious illness and death among First Nations populations from COVID and other diseases is up to four times that of the wider population.
There are multiple reasons for this, including the greater likelihood of underlying conditions and reduced access to appropriate health care.
We saw a similar situation in 2009, when H1N1 influenza rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more than five times those of other Australians.
Overseas, COVID-19 has been associated with striking racial disparities, with death rates for African Americans more than triple the rates for Caucasians, and more than 4% for Navajo people (compared to 1.6% for the whole population).
On September 9, the New South Wales government announced its intention to lift lockdowns and other public health measures when the state reaches a vaccination target of 70% of the adult population. This equates to a little over 50% of the state’s population.
If such a policy were implemented it would have disastrous consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other vulnerable populations.
Vaccination rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are lagging badly behind the remainder of the Australian population. In many places in NSW, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory fewer than 20% are fully vaccinated.
What should happen instead?
Aboriginal organisations have called on state and federal governments to delay any substantial easing of restrictions until vaccination rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations aged 12 years and older reach 90-95%.
The organisations calling for such a target include the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, the Aboriginal Medical Services of the Northern Territory and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.
A 90-95% vaccination rate gives about the same level of population coverage for all ages as the 80% target for the entire population. That’s because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are younger than the wider population.
Vaccinating 90-95% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population will better protect children and other unvaccinated people in First Nations communities from infection.
This will require an immediate, well-resourced and determined effort to lift vaccination rates.
Many Aboriginal community controlled health services are already running urgent vaccination campaigns with existing resources, but more needs to be done.
The Australian government’s announcement this week of A$7.7 million to fast-track vaccinations in 30 priority areas across the country is an important first step.
But the program needs to be expanded to all areas with significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.
Australia’s First Nations vaccination program needs to:
guarantee a sufficient and reliable source of vaccines to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
ensure health services have the capacity and the workforce to carry out intensive outreach vaccination programs. This includes culturally knowledgeable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers able to engage with communities, and clinicians
address vaccine hesitancy. This should start with the recognition there are many reasons for reluctance to be vaccinated.
What are the reasons for vaccine hesitancy?
For some, there is a historical and understandable distrust of the health system.
Others have been confused or made fearful by misinformation spread on social media or through fringe religious groups.
Many others are not fundamentally opposed to vaccination but are adopting a “wait and see” approach.
To overcome this hesitancy we need urgent government support for financial incentives, in the form of food vouchers or other benefits. This has been done for vulnerable groups in other countries.
Non-financial incentives requiring full vaccination for travel, entering pubs, clubs, restaurants, sporting venues and so on need to be flagged now with a commencement date in the near future.
Effective health education in Aboriginal languages developed by local Aboriginal community controlled health services need to be in the media daily.
Don’t leave vulnerable groups behind
All this is achievable but it requires the combined efforts of government working in partnership with Aboriginal community controlled health services.
Until the 90-95% target is met, rigorous restrictions should remain in place. This is consistent with modelling from the Burnet and Doherty institutes, which inform the NSW and national policies about reopening.
As the Burnet Institute told the authors of this article, Australia:
should not move to Phase B and C until vaccination coverage in each jurisdiction’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is as high as, or even higher than, the general community.
Similar considerations undoubtedly apply to some other vulnerable groups in the population.
Australia remains burdened by the legacy of centuries of harm and damage to its First Nations people. We are facing the possibility of a renewed assault on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
The difference today is the outcomes are foreseeable and we know what needs to be done to avert them.
Kalinda Griffiths, UNSWOn Sunday, New South Wales saw four more deaths from COVID-19. One of them was a man from Dubbo who was in his 50s and unvaccinated. It was the first COVID-19 death of a First Nations person in Australia.
Aboriginal communities in remote areas have been pleading with the government for help with medical resourcing and food for families. It was recently found there were pleas for protection against COVID in Wilcannia, with Aboriginal health organisation Maari Ma Aboriginal Health contacting Ken Wyatt about this back in March last year.
There has been some progress in the nation’s vaccination rates with a little over 32% of the eligible population over the age of 12 now vaccinated. However, the second wave of COVID-19 in New South Wales highlights concerns for the unvaccinated and those with multiple risk factors. This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at risk
It’s well known Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of disease than non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in New South Wales experience two or more health conditions at a rate that is over two and half times greater than non-Indigenous people.
In addition, there is increased risk of spread in families, as larger family groups often live together in regional and remote communities.
These risks, along with extreme yet ignored service gaps in regional and remote areas, mean our Indigenous community is facing severe risk of death and disease from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Children and young people under the age of 20 account for a little over 20% of Australia’s case numbers, with all children aged 12 to 15 now recommended to get the Pfizer vaccine.
The gaps in COVID-19 publicly available data are concerning, especially data specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
There is currently no information on vaccination rates for children over the age of 12 in out-of-home care. In 2018 there were 45,800 children in out-of-home care. About 40% of these children are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
Despite the daily high case numbers, this week the New South Wales government announced restrictions in the state will be relaxed across selected local government areas for those people who are fully vaccinated.
While the risk for those people who are vaccinated is relatively low, greater activity could still increase the spread of COVID-19 across the state, putting people in Aboriginal communities at greater risk.
Knowing exactly who is vaccinated and who is at greatest risk will be of the utmost importance as restrictions start to ease.
How the public can help
The increasing case numbers and resultant lockdowns across NSW local government areas have seen Aboriginal communities having limited access to health care and basic necessities due to limitations in the supply of regional and remote supermarkets. A number of First Nations people have rallied together to support their communities.
This has included pages that have been set up for:
People can donate or contact the volunteer group to get involved.
Where to next?
As the Delta variant makes its way across Australia, all people need access to vaccines. This means increasing government resources and health system efforts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as well as ensuring all Indigenous people have multiple access points to the vaccines.
This could include door-to-door vaccinations in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, pop-up vaccination clinics in regional and remote local government areas as well as school-based vaccinations.
With the expected mRNA vaccine supplies to be sufficient for the entire Australian population in the coming months, the biggest next step is ensuring their distribution is prioritised to those who need it the most.
This requires moving beyond the rhetoric and supporting health services, particularly Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, to do the work.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraUrgent medical resources are being dispatched to western NSW in a vaccination and support drive after the alarming spread of COVID into Aboriginal communities there.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the first of five Australian Defence Force vaccination teams will arrive on Wednesday.
An initial Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) – which is multidisciplinary health group – will also be sent within a couple of days. AUSMATs can help shore up local hospitals and health services where that might be needed.
COVID has now spread to areas including Bourke, Broken Hill, Brewarrina, Gilgandra, Walgett and Dubbo.
With a large Indigenous population in these areas and a low vaccination rate, COVID presents an especially serious threat. Aboriginal people are vulnerable because they often already have other health conditions.
Most of the about 117 cases in western NSW are among Indigenous people, particularly young people.
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said that nationally 169,000 Indigenous Australians had had their first vaccine (a rate of 30%), and 69,000 (15%) had had two doses.
The rates are much lower than for the general community, where more than a quarter of eligible Australians (26.9%) are now fully vaccinated.
Wyatt said Indigenous leaders were stepping up and “we’re seeing straight talking happening”.
He said some Indigenous people had been fearful of adverse effects of being vaccinated.
“People are now believing that it is time for them to take the proactive action. And the elders and the leaders are ensuring that the straight messages, straight talking is now part of what communities are hearing.”
Dharriwaa Elders Group at Walgett called for more resources and help in a statement last week.
“Many of our Elders and others in Walgett experience health and social issues that make them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The impact on our community could be devastating,” they said.
Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said the shortage of Pfizer and people’s reluctance to have AstraZeneca had been problems in the rollout in western NSW.
“People put their back up against getting AstraZeneca,” she said. They had also thought they were a long way from Sydney, where the NSW outbreak was centred.
With the spread of the virus people were now realising they needed to be vaccinated, Turner said. But she was still “very concerned” about the situation in western NSW.
She said one of the problems Aboriginal health centres had was a shortage of staff due to state border closures, as well as nurses not coming from New Zealand.
She welcomed the dispatch of the defence and AUSMAT teams and that increased supplies of Pfizer had been prioritised as well as more testing capacity and personal protective equipment.
Bhiamie Williamson, Australian National UniversityThe afternoon of August 11 was rather exciting in my community – the tiny, remote Aboriginal township of Goodooga in north-western NSW. After months of waiting, our COVID-19 vaccination clinic was planned for the next day.
Then the news came through of a positive case in Walgett, and the vaccine clinic was cancelled. In the midst of an unrelenting COVID-19 outbreak in NSW, other Aboriginal communities like Goodooga are facing uncertain times ahead.
A clearly defined vulnerable community
From the start of the pandemic, Aboriginal people were identified as “a clearly defined vulnerable community”.
These vulnerabilities stem from both chronic health conditions suffered by Aboriginal people and under-resourced health services in regional and remote areas.
Total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vaccination rates are low, but there are also concerns about pockets of poor vaccination coverage in individual communities. As Dr Jason Agostino from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation shared with the Guardian:
Unless we’re paying attention to those small levels of geography and those individual communities, we might find islands of poor vaccination coverage that leave those communities vulnerable.
Low vaccination rates have been exacerabated by an absence of Pfizer supply to a youthful population. Aboriginal vaccine hesitancy in Western NSW is largely attributable to anxieties around AstraZeneca, something which isn’t specific to Aboriginal communities.
AstraZeneca hesitancy has been heightened by ATAGI’s recommendation that Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for those aged 12–59.
But in Brewarrina, a recent vaccination hub was organised, only for community members to find out it was only administering AstraZeneca. Instances such as this hardly alleviate anxieties, especially when the Aboriginal population is overwhelmingly young — 86% of Aboriginal people in the Brewarrina area are less than 60 years old.
Although Aboriginal people are in priority categories for access to the vaccination, in Western NSW we haven’t been given access to supplies of the Pfizer vaccine ahead of lower priority groups in Sydney. The cancellation of vaccine clinics such as Goodooga and others (Bourke also had their vaccine clinic cancelled), add to these issues.
Indigenous organisations have long identified the need to deliver culturally appropriate public health messaging, especially around vaccinations, with some developing their own communications, such as NITV’s “Keep the Mob safe from COVID-19” campaign. But this messaging has made limited headway given the mixed messaging about AstraZeneca and lack of access to Pfizer.
Lax COVID testing results in community infections
The state government was put on notice by Aboriginal justice advocates who had highlighted the vulnerabilities of Aboriginal people in custody and in prison. Factors such as over-crowded conditions which make physical distancing impossible, and incarcerated people have much higher rates of chronic health conditions.
Then, in the first week of August, a young man in Western NSW was taken into custody over a weekend, tested for COVID-19 upon entering the prison, and then released on bail a few days later. This young man’s test was not considered urgent because he had not been to a location of concern nor a close contact of a known case.
By the time the young man’s positive test was returned, he was in his hometown of Walgett. The town was plunged into a snap lockdown, with emergency testing facilities established and urgent pleas for vaccines.
While this was happening, an outbreak was spreading in Dubbo, a large regional centre that services much of the north-west. The adjacent local government areas of Bogan, Brewarrina, Bourke, Warren, Coonamble, Gilgandra and Narromine were also placed in a snap seven-day lockdown.
According to our estimates, Aboriginal people make up 25% of the general population in the nine areas of most concern in western NSW. Of this population, 26.5% are under the age of 11, meaning they are currently unable to be vaccinated.
A further 62.4% are aged 12–59, the age group for which Pfizer is ATAGI’s preferred vaccine. Until adequate supplies of Pfizer are provided, our community is unlikely to be protected against the virus.
Fears in western-NSW continue to rise with the increased rate of positive tests in Aboriginal families with particular concern over the rate of COVID-19 infections in children.
It is also important to understand these remote townships rarely have the services and goods to sustain themselves. For example, my hometown of Goodooga is located in the Brewarrina Shire, and yet our closest store is Lightning Ridge, located in the Walgett local government area. According to the restrictions first announced by the state government, our community were initially not permitted to travel there for basic supplies.
As COVID-19 has spread, so has fear and anxiety. Uncle Victor Beale, a Walgett Elder speaking to ABCs Nakari Thorpe, said, “I thought Walgett was one of the safest places on earth [but now] there’s a lot of anxious people”. Another Elder, Aunty Marie Denis Kennedy, meanwhile shared her concern and anger, “There’s no sort of protection for us”.
Scott McLachlan, the chief executive of the Western NSW Local Health District, shared his concerns around these recent outbreaks:
The large proportion of the new cases, and our total cases, are Aboriginal people both in Dubbo and Walgett and many of those are children.
Meanwhile, the NSW Health Minister admitted the medical services in Walgett were not prepared for an outbreak.
There has also been anger at the confusion caused by uncoordinated and confusing messaging from the NSW government about infections and exposure sites.
Multiple, successive, and cascading policy failures
Now what we see unfolding is the result of multiple, successive and cascading policy failures:
failure to vaccinate Aboriginal communities, one of the highest priority groups
failure to safely transition inmates and detainees from correctional facilities to their home communities
failure to plan for and create a surge capacity within local medical services
failure to plan for a COVID outbreak in regional and remote areas, where Sydney’s rules (such as not leaving your local government area) are ineffective in a vast landscape with interwoven communities that depend on one another.
Sensible strategies with achievable milestones that have long been advocated for – such as securing temporary accommodation for inmates and detainees transitioning from correctional facilities – could have protected our communities.
Now, the responsibility to make our communities safe is falling on our own organisations. Often under-resourced and under-staffed despite calls for extra support from the government, these community organisations work tirelessly, often without due recognition or appropriate pay.
Though this work may seem invisible to outsiders and government alike, we see it and we thank you.
Back in Goodooga, families hide in their homes, hoping to ride out this outbreak. But there is a feeling also of being forgotten. In this extraordinary and scary time, all we seem to have is each other, and our families in the city who worry for us.
The Delta variant is a particular concern for higher-risk populations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Vaccinations of First Nations people must be carried out more quickly.
And in light of the elite Sydney private school erroneously giving all Year 12 students vaccines that were intended only for First Nations students, there’s also a need for stricter guidelines and better oversight.
When questioned about the mistake this week, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard demanded that critics “move on”. But authorities should not dismiss public concern that vaccines are not being distributed to those who need them most.
To ensure this, the vaccination rollout for First Nations people needs to involve Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations in the planning and implementation. We have already seen that when community-controlled organisations take control, vaccine delivery is successful and communities feel safer.
In March, a vaccine implementation plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was published by the federal health department. The publication iterated the urgent need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be a high priority in the rollout.
First Nations people over the age of 55 have been able to get vaccinated since March. It’s also been a little over a month since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged between 16 to 49 years have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
However, there is currently limited publicly available data on just how many vaccines have actually been distributed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so far.
While the media has reported on vaccine hesitancy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is anecdotal evidence that hesitancy is actually decreasing and that remote community clinics are vaccinating many First Nations people.
This success highlights the importance of having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations involved in the rollout. This involves recognising that self-determination, as well as health information being delivered in first languages, results in improved uptake of services and better health outcomes.
Despite this, there is evidence First Nations people are not being sufficiently included in planning and implementation of the rollout.
For example, a meeting of the national COVID vaccine taskforce last week excluded the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 was also excluded from the discussion.
Pat Turner, the head of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said the lack of First Nations inclusion was “deeply concerning”.
The vaccine rollout must be managed so First Nations people and other vulnerable groups are prioritised. This means securing better vaccine supplies and putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the heart of decision-making.
Colonisation is invasion: a group of people taking over the land and imposing their own culture on Indigenous people.
Modern colonisation dates back to the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, as European nations sought to expand their influence and wealth. In the process, representatives of these countries claimed the land, ignoring the Indigenous people and erasing Indigenous sovereignty.
Laws and policing were significant tools of dispossession and oppression. Indigenous people were brutalised, exploited and often positioned as subhuman. As Jean-Paul Sartre described colonisation:
[…] you begin by occupying the country, then you take the land and exploit the former owners at starvation rates […] you finish up taking from the natives their very right to work.
Colonisation is more than physical. It is also cultural and psychological in determining whose knowledge is privileged. In this, colonisation not only impacts the first generation colonised but creates enduring issues.
Decolonisation seeks to reverse and remedy this through direct action and listening to the voices of First Nations people.
The word “decolonisation” was first coined by the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn in the 1930s to describe former colonies that achieved self-governance.
Many struggles for independence were armed and bloody. The Algerian War of Independence (1954- 1962) against the French was particularly brutal.
Other struggles involved political negotiations and passive resistance.
While the exiting of the British from India in 1947 is largely remembered as nonviolent resistance under Gandhi’s pacifist ethic, the campaign started in 1857 and was not without bloodshed.
The quest for independence is rarely peaceful.
Decolonisation is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological and economic freedom.
In most countries where colonisers remain, Indigenous people still don’t hold significant positions of power or self-determination. These nations are termed “settler-colonial” countries – a term made popular in the 1990s by academic Patrick Wolfe, who said “invasion is a structure not an event”.
Another word that is useful in understanding decolonisation is “neocolonial”. It was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, in the early 1960s to refer to the continuity of the former coloniser’s power through economic, political, educational and other informal means.
In these neocolonial or settler-colonial countries, advocacy for the rights of Indigenous people is not always matched by action. The voices of Indigenous people for treaty and truth in culture, politics, law and education resound while practice lags.
We might kneel to remember those murdered. But we need to call on institutions to enact required reforms for decolonisation. We need to support people in organisations who speak out against racism. We need to question whether colonisation taught us to stand, in institutional uniforms of the mind, and passively watch the choking.
You probably know the details of the death of George Floyd. He was a doting father and musician. He was killed when a police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he cried out “I can’t breathe!”
Do you know about David Dungay Jr? He was a Dunghutti man, an uncle. He had a talent for poetry that made his family endlessly proud. He was held down by six corrections officers in a prone position until he died and twice injected with sedatives because he ate rice crackers in his cell.
At the end of a long inquest that stretched to almost four years, the coroner declined to refer the officers involved in Dungay’s death to prosecutors (who might consider charges) or to disciplinary bodies.
When I heard [George Floyd] say ‘I can’t breathe’ for the first time I had to stop … My solidarity is with them because I do know the pain they are feeling. And as for the Aboriginal deaths in our backyard … it’s not in the public as much as it should be.
A perception Indigenous deaths in custody are expected
Many people on this continent know more about police and prison violence in the US, another settler colony, than the same violence that happens here. Both are deserving of our attention and action, so what’s behind the curious silence on First Nations deaths in custody in Australia?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have raised this concern long before today in the media and social media.
Why do we have to? The reasons are complex, but boil down to a system of complicity and perceived normality in Indigenous deaths at the hands of police and prisons. The settler Australian public simply does not see Indigenous deaths in custody as an act of violence, but as a co-morbidity.
The choice of language is important: it evokes a certain response in the reader and shapes our understandings of events. In the case of Palm Island, the often-repeated meta-narrative of so-called ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘lawless’ Aboriginal communities served to justify further acts of colonial violence.
In my 2018 pilot study on a sample of 134 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I found coroners considered referring just 11 deaths to prosecutors and only ended up referring five. Of those, only two made it to court and both resulted in quashed indictments or acquittals.
These are monumental figures. They are also stories of deep systemic complicity, both before and after death. And they are full lives, with loved ones who mourn and fight for them.
The scale of devastation is unthinkable – and violent, and racist.
What makes Australian silence about deaths in custody so especially bizarre is that, unlike the US, we have a mandatory legal review of every death in custody or police presence. Each case, regardless of its circumstances, goes before a judge called a coroner.
Just as public political will is always changing, so is law and legal strategy. Compared to the campaigns for justice for black people killed by police in the US, which have made relative gains, many families here are working in a complex space of honouring their loved ones, proper cultural protocols around death and the dead, and securing CCTV footage to mobilise the public for justice.
Coroners have offered mixed responses, and each state and territory’s coroner approaches the question in a slightly different way.
After the death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman, in police custody in Western Australia in 2014, persistent advocacy from the families and media organisations prompted the coroner to release footage of her treatment before her death. Coroner Ros Fogliani did so
in order to assist with the fair and accurate reporting of my findings on inquest.
However, last year, NSW deputy coroner Derek Lee initially declined to release footage showing the circumstances of Dungay’s death, citing cultural respect, sensitivity for his family and secrecy over prison procedures.
Members of Dungay’s family, who had applied to have it released, responded with exasperation. It was eventually shown on the opening day of the inquest, although the fuller footage requested by the family remains suppressed from public view.
Other ways families are silenced
There are other transparency issues that give a legal structure to silence about Indigenous deaths in custody. Recently, there appears to be a new push in non-publication or suppression orders being sought by state parties in coroners courts.
In Dungay’s inquest, for instance, the media was ordered not to publish the names, addresses or any other identifying features (including photographs) of 21 NSW corrections staff members.
There have been other suppression orders in deaths in custody matters before criminal courts, such as the identity of the officer facing a murder charge in the death of Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke in Western Australia last year.
Officers in South Australia are also going to some strategic effort to avoid testifying before the inquest into the death of Wayne Fella Morrison, a Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man, or even speak with investigators on the grounds of penalty privilege.
investigations surrounding the cause of death in prisons can have a great impact for our grieving families to at least get an account of what happened to our loved ones in the absence of our care. It can also raise the spotlight on the behaviours of correctional and police officers – like those that piled atop of my brother’s body.
Outside of coroners courts, there is the threat of subjudice contempt, when media coverage may pose a prejudicial threat to a potential trial.
This carries a risk for families who speak out about their loved one’s deaths in a way that even implies something happened or someone did something. Subjudice contempt poses liability to them personally when they speak out, but also could jeopardise their push for justice.
This puts First Nations peoples at the mercy of what can be raised before a jury, judge or coroner. With lengthy procedural delays, this can also mean a case is hard to talk about publicly for years.
This is problematic given that timely publicity about deaths in custody is what drives attention. Taleah Reynolds, the sister of Nathan Reynolds, who died in custody in NSW in 2018, said,
We’re coming up to a year since he died and we still don’t know anything more.
I feel like they don’t have any remorse; they hide behind the system. No one’s held accountable, that’s the most frustrating part.
All of this leaves our public discourse full of blak bodies but curiously empty of people who put them there.
The power of public campaigning
Prosecution or referral seems to come only from cases where First Nations families have strong public advocacy and community groundswells behind them and strategic litigation resources (not just inquest legal aid).
As the late Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba leader Sam Watson said of the campaign for justice for the death of Mulrunji Doomagee on Palm Island:
Unfortunately, the government had to be dragged to this point screaming and kicking every inch of the way. Every time there’s been a breakdown in the procedure, the family and community on Palm Island are being subjected to more trauma, drama and unnecessary grandstanding by politicians.
Right now, three deaths are either before prosecutors or in their early stages of prosecution. All have been part of growing, public campaigns driven by their families and communities — although many others, like Dungay’s family, have done the same and still been faced with institutional complicity.
Clearly, there is much legal structure that supports this silence, but the basis of the silence itself is colonisation and white supremacy. As Amy McQuire writes:
Their wounds also testify to this violence. But while this footage has been important for mobilising Aboriginal people, non-Indigenous Australia is still complacent and apathetic.
They are not ‘outraged’ because they are not ‘shocked’. There is nothing shocking about racist violence perpetrated by police, because it is normalised.
When we do hear about the Indigenous lives lost in custody, it is undoubtedly because of the persistence, expertise and courage of their families and communities who mourn them. But it is not enough to hear about justice, justice must be done.
Yesterday was National Sorry Day in Australia. It marks the anniversary of the tabling of the Bringing Them Home report, which chronicles decades of removals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
Sorry Day also acknowledges the strength of the Stolen Generations survivors and reflects on the role everyone can play in healing our country.
Yesterday was also the third anniversary of the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which poignantly notes:
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
And this week is National Reconciliation Week, which represents a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements. The theme this year is “In This Together”.
However, a new report released today makes clear the treatment of First Australians during the COVID-19 outbreak is not the same as for non-Indigenous Australians.
The report by Change the Record, the First Peoples-led justice coalition of peak bodies and allies, highlights numerous ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been disproportionately affected by the more punitive and restrictive policy responses to the pandemic.
Among the findings were:
First Nations people have experienced an increased use of lockdowns in prisons and have had reduced access to lawyers and visits from families
some prisons have required people in prison “to pay exorbitant fees to call loved ones”
victim-survivors of family violence have been unable to access police protection and support services due to staffing shortages (a particular concern because there is evidence such violence is increasing)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services have reported “substantial challenges” in working with their clients and are concerned about a spike in legal demand as soon as restrictions are lifted
the closures of residential drug and alcohol facilities have led to people being sent home, leaving some people without alternative and safe living arrangements
First Nations parents have had access to their children in out-of-home care restricted, causing “distress and anxiety in a time of heightened stress for everyone”
there has been over-policing of First Nations people for offences such as public nuisance, public drunkenness, fare evasion and failure to comply with move on orders. There have been high numbers of fines issued in small towns with high First Nations populations and low levels of COVID-19.
Governments’ COVID-19 prison policies have been inadequate
As we have argued in open letters to governments and elsewhere, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in prisons has been a concern requiring immediate action across the country.
First Nations people are particularly at risk of infection, due to:
The Change the Record report chronicles the despair of First Nations people in prisons and their lack of access to services and support.
An Aboriginal man, Daniel, has been remanded in prison in Tasmania since early 2020. … Daniel is not allowed any visits with his family or his lawyer because of COVID-19 restrictions. He reports feeling lost in the legal proceedings because he cannot have a decent chat with his lawyer about the matters and get advice.
The report makes recommendations for people in prisons, including:
the release of First Nations people in prisons who are low-risk, on remand, elderly or at increased risk of COVID-19, as well as children and those with chronic health conditions
protecting the human rights of First Nations people in prison, by ensuring access to oversight and monitoring agencies, family, legal services, mental health care, education and programs
The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on children
Some of the invisible victims in the pandemic are the children of prisoners. Imprisonment disrupts family life, especially in cases when a First Nations mother or primary caregiver is incarcerated.
Because physical visits have been suspended, children’s access to their imprisoned parents has been even more constrained.
The Change the Record report also notes how First Nations parents are unable to visit with their children in out-of-home care.
Julia had been having multiple face-to-face visits with her child every week. Due to COVID-19, Julia’s contact with her daughter has been reduced to one phone/video call a week. … When children cannot engage in this mode of communication, for some parents contact with their children has stopped all together.
The report makes recommendations for policies affecting children during the pandemic, including:
increasing support and access to safe accommodation for First Nations families fleeing family violence to stop further removals of children
implement legislative changes to ensure parents of First Nations children in out-of-home care don’t lose their children to permanent care during COVID-19.
The report also calls for:
rebuilding our justice system after COVID-19 to focus on investing in community, not prisons, to increase community safety and prevent black deaths in custody.
No return to status quo
We endorse these recommendations, especially the final call to rebuild our justice system. As we emerge from the immediate threat of the pandemic, it is vital that we not return to the status quo.
If Reconciliation Week is to be meaningful, governments must take action to heal, rather than jail, First Nations people. In the current circumstances, this includes acting on Change the Record’s recommendations.
Chronic diseases such as respiratory diseases (including asthma), heart and circulatory diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney diseases and some cancers are more common in Indigenous people, and tend to occur at younger ages, than in non-Indigenous people.
These diseases, and the living conditions that contribute to them (such as poor nutrition, poor hygiene and lifestyle factors such as smoking), dramatically increase Indigenous people’s risk of being infected with coronavirus and for having more severe symptoms.
So Elders and those with chronic disease are vulnerable at any age.
We know from past pandemics, such as swine flu (H1N1), Indigenous Australians are more likely to become infected with respiratory viruses, and have more serious disease when they do.
So far, there have been 44 cases of coronavirus among Indigenous people, mostly in our major cities. We’re likely to see more in coming months.
This suggests the decision to close remote communities has been successful so far. But we also need to now focus on urban centres to prevent and manage further cases.
Current Australian government advice is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and over with existing health conditions to self-isolate. General government health advice tells all Australians to maintain good hygiene and seek health care when needed.
But this advice is easier said than done for many urban Indigenous people.
So what unique family and cultural needs and circumstances so we need to consider to reduce their risk of coronavirus?
This is particularly the case when it comes to infectious diseases, which thrive when too many people live together with poor hygiene (when it’s difficult for personal cleanliness, to keep clean spaces, wash clothes and cook healthy meals) and when people sleep in close contact.
Crowded accommodation also means increased exposure to passive smoking and other shared risky lifestyles.
Households are also more likely to be intergenerational, with many children and young people living with older parents and grandparents. This potentially increases the chances of the coronavirus spreading among and between households, infecting vulnerable older members.
Immediate solutions to prevent infection are, with guidance from Aboriginal organisations, to house people in these situations in safe emergency accommodation. But it is also an opportunity to work with Aboriginal organisations in the longer term to improve access to better housing to improve general health and well-being.
Poor health literacy
Indigenous Australians don’t always have access to good information about the coronavirus in formats that are easily understood and culturally appropriate.
The challenge is to get these distributed in urban centres urgently. These health messages should also be distributed in Aboriginal Medical Services waiting rooms and on Indigenous television and radio.
Poverty will limit some families’ ability to buy hand sanitiser, face masks, disinfectant and soap.
Although there are provisions for Indigenous Australians to receive free vaccines against the flu and pneumococcal disease to protect against lung disease, not all age groups are covered.
Scepticism of mainstream health services
Due to policies and racism that have marginalised Indigenous people, many do not use health and other services.
This is why Aboriginal Controlled Health Services are so important and successful in providing culturally sensitive and appropriate care.
However, there is concern these health services are not adequately funded or prepared to manage a coronavirus pandemic in urban centres.
They need more personal protective equipment (including masks). They also need more Aboriginal health workers, community nurses and others for testing and contact tracing.
What do governments need to do?
Some regions’ responses have been better than others.
In Western Australia, the urban-based Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) are working with key state government departments to coordinate the COVID-19 response. This includes guidance about how best to prevent and manage cases.
It’s time for other governments to set up collaborative arrangements with ACCHS and other Aboriginal controlled service organisations in urban centres to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
This should include more staff to:
help people self-isolate
explain and embed the digital COVID-19 media messages about hand washing, use of sanitisers and social distancing
enable accommodation that is acceptable and safe, especially for Elders and homeless people.
These services should also provide free flu and pneumococcal vaccinations.
Getting Indigenous health experts to lead this defence is clearly the way to go. We must listen and respond to these leaders to implement effective strategies immediately. If ever there was an opportunity to demonstrate that giving Indigenous people a voice to manage their own futures is effective, it is this.
Our hope is that, after this pandemic, the value of Aboriginal control will be recognised as the best way to improve Aboriginal health and well-being.
This article was co-authored by Adrian Carson, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health; Donisha Duff, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health; Francine Eades, Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service; and Lesley Nelson, South West Aboriginal Medical Service.