Social distancing ‘logistically impossible’ for Aboriginal Australians living in overcrowded, remote communities

Social distancing has become the norm throughout the country in recent weeks, but is it actually viable for every Australian? (Image source: Poppy Fitzpatrick) 

By Annabel Bowles | @annabel_bowles

Official health advice says widespread social distancing can slow the spread of Covid-19, but this isn’t an option for Aboriginal people living in overcrowded housing.

2016 Census data found over 60,000 Aboriginal people live in multi-family households, and almost 30% of these households require at least two more bedrooms to accommodate everyone.

Linda*, a Waanyi and Tagalaka woman and nurse specialising in Indigenous healthcare, said as many as 16 to 20 people may live in a single house.

“A typical house would have a mother, a father, and let’s say they have five kids, and they’ve had three kids each,” she said.

“There’d only be one flushing toilet and one shower, depending if the plumbing’s even working.”

But in a press conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the national cabinet strongly advises Aboriginal people over the age of 50 to stay at home and self-isolate “to the maximum extent practical”.

“How do we get Aboriginal people to self-isolate when there’s just not enough accommodation?” Linda said.

“That’s always been our biggest issue, especially in remote communities.

“The advice is to just stay home, but for many Aboriginal people, it’s like, ‘Well this isn’t my home, this is just a house.’

“It can be very constricting.”

Last Wednesday, Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, and Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, released a joint media statement addressing the steps they’re taking to support remote communities through the Covid-19 pandemic.

They’ve committed $57.8 million to a Remote Community Preparedness and Retrieval package, which will assist in border closures, travel restrictions, and the opening of GP respiratory clinics in remote communities.

The statement encouraged Aboriginal people to return to Country as soon as possible, but ruled that each person must self-isolate for 14 days before entering their community.

Nothing was said as to how they would self-isolate, only that the package would help remote communities “respond effectively” if a Covid-19 outbreak occurs.

But prior to the government’s action, many Aboriginal communities, including the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in north-western South Australia, had already closed their borders under the Biosecurity Act 2015.

In an open letter, Mimili Maku Arts in the APY Lands said that already full houses are now beyond capacity as the government pushes estranged Aboriginal people to return to their families.

Linda said it’s now “logistically impossible” to construct emergency accommodation in closed-off communities.

She also said that the high rates of chronic diseases among Aboriginal people means many, including herself, are disproportionally threatened by Covid-19.

“Renal failure, kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension – every second one of us would have something like that,” Linda said.

“I’ve got two chronic illnesses myself, and if I get it, I’m dead.

“It’s that simple.”

In the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the fatality rate of Aboriginal Australians was six times higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians, according to a Department of Health and Ageing review.

As Covid-19 sweeps across Australia, remote and overcrowded communities have little more than border closures and travel restrictions to defend against an outbreak.

“As an Aboriginal woman I’m scared for my people, I really am,” Linda said.

“I’m scared for myself.”

 

*Names of people and companies have been changed or omitted for privacy reasons.

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