Politics

Federal politics

Northern exposure
COVID-19 is turning Indigenous communities into a tinderbox

Balgo township. Photograph by yaruman5 / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

It is no small thing for Australian citizens to ask their own army for help. That must go tenfold for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, into whose communities an earlier conservative government sent tanks and soldiers, ostensibly to stop a child abuse problem that was national in scale, but really to impose the latest in a 230-year history of controls on Aboriginal bodies, cultures and minds.

But with COVID-19 insisting its way into our cities’ suburbs despite ever-tighter restrictions, there’s more than a sense that Aboriginal families and communities are bracing for something big. Something that will devastate, even more, again. As the hidden history of massacres and genocide has emerged since the 1970s, we’ve perhaps forgotten that the catastrophe of introduced disease – earlier generations’ main explanation for the 19th-century decimation of Aboriginal populations – was not all euphemism. From bitter experience overseas we know that this virus is particularly lethal for people with existing chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. One legacy of dispossession and successive waves of state violence and neglect is that Aboriginal people are spectacularly over-represented in this cohort. A member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) warned the eventual mortality rate among Aboriginal people could be as high as 20 to 30 per cent. The risks are highest for elders.

Patricia Turner, chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), first asked the federal government to consider deploying the army in remote areas on March 15. She’d just received reports that clinics in the Kimberley had been sent just two sets of masks, gloves and gowns for each health worker, and that it was taking up to two weeks for COVID-19 tests to be returned. “In that time,” Turner told Guardian Australia, “if someone has it, the whole community will get it.” Extraordinarily, Turner declared that “the army is our friend in this situation”.

Others have since added their voices, including Dr John Boffa, chief medical officer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. Among the latest is Jane Vadiveloo, psychologist by training and now chief executive of Children’s Ground, who has lived and worked in Central Australia for two decades. Alice Springs, she says, is the equivalent of a coronaviral tinderbox, with people stranded after they missed their window to return to communities, and others crammed into overcrowded, dysfunctional department houses.


There were already 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia before the first person tested positive in Darwin, on March 4 – a tourist who’d recently arrived from overseas, via Sydney. After receiving briefings from federal and Territory governments, NACCHO’s deputy chief executive, Dawn Casey, said the organisation was “well-equipped” and “well-placed” to look after its people.

Perhaps. But amid PR fluff about “taking proactive steps” and “meeting regularly with stakeholders”, authorities in early March were doing little to inspire confidence. The Northern Territory’s chief health officer, Professor Dianne Stephens, told Guardian Australia’s Jack Banister that “most people who have contracted the COVID-19 infection develop only mild to moderate symptoms”. While that’s true, the story for people with pre-existing conditions is quite different. Banister asked how self-isolation would work in Aboriginal communities, where overcrowding is rife. Stephens didn’t specify.

Banister got similar responses from authorities elsewhere. Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, couldn’t give any details yet about COVID-19’s implications for its remote communities. Nor could New South Wales’s health department. Western Australia had set up a “working group” to address concerns about self-isolation, but a government spokesperson was unable to confirm what alternatives were being considered. At that point, WA had not yet developed resources in Aboriginal languages, and was referring people to federal resources – which were available in Mandarin and Farsi, but not in any Australian languages.

Governments then worked furiously to fast track COVID-19 plans for remote communities, with the input of AIDA, NACCHOS and communicable disease experts. The Northern Territory released its plan on March 10. “Non-essential” government trips to communities would be cancelled, and health workers would “strongly promote” flu vaccination to reduce the concurrent burden. The plan acknowledged the “challenges” associated with overcrowding and substandard access to health care (if only its authors could do something about that). Three days later the NT Local Court suspended its bush courts, to stop lawyers and judges travelling out to communities from Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine.

In early March there was concern about FIFO workers who were coming in from all parts – including as far afield as New Zealand, Bali and Thailand – to work at the mines that are often just up the road from communities. The short road between the Yolngu community Yirrkala (of bark petition fame) and the Arnhem town of Nhulunbuy (which services Rio Tinto’s nearby bauxite mine, which the petition failed to stop) is well travelled. But Nhulunbuy wasn’t on the NT government’s list of communities to which non-essential travel should be stopped. Rio Tinto said simply that it was “respecting” federal government guidelines. The GEMCO mine on Groote Eylandt is a stone’s throw from Angurugu, as is the airport, and FIFO workers mix freely with locals in the township of Alyangula just up the road. Groote has the potential, its land council’s chief executive Mark Hewitt told the ABC, to be “a bit like one of those cruise ships where you had an infection that just spread, because it’s essentially like a Petri dish”. From midnight on March 15, all new arrivals from overseas – including workers – had to self-isolate for two weeks or face penalties.

But in mid March, at which point official health advice was to avoid public gatherings of more than 500 people and to “reconsider your need” to travel overseas, the federal government still wasn’t seeing Aboriginal people and communities as a special case. On March 11 the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory wrote to the federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, asking for work-for-the-dole activities – which unnecessarily force people together – to be suspended. Wyatt never responded, but five days later the government wrote to work-for-the-dole providers, stating that “mutual obligations remain in place at this stage”. Anyone who got sick had to call Centrelink “to discuss obtaining a Major Personal Crisis Exemption”, valid for two weeks, or risk having their social security cut off. Then on March 13, in a staggering move considering the implications for nearby communities, the federal tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, waived the entry fees to Kakadu and Uluru for the rest of the year. (He never changed his mind, even after public pleas by NACCHO and doctors. On March 26, the national parks made their own decisions to close.)

Meanwhile, communities and organisations were doing what needed to be done. Aboriginal media took on the task of translating health messages into 17 languages. On March 6 the APY Lands – at the intersection of the NT, WA and South Australia – declared they’d refuse entry to anyone who’d been in China, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Mongolia unless they’d tested negative. On March 14, the Northern Land Council suspended all existing permits for non-essential travel to Top End communities. Larrakia Nation (in Darwin) and the Tangentyere Council (in Alice Springs) convinced the Territory government to pay the difference on their already-subsidised Return to Country programs, to encourage people visiting town to return to their communities before the virus strikes. Approximately 1600 people took up the offer over the next week and a half. On March 19, the Aboriginal Medical Service in the Kimberley told grey nomads planning their winter trip north to “stay home”. Communities in Far North Queensland began banning all travel in and out, even to their own residents: one woman who convinced the parole board to release her from prison early last week was stranded when she couldn’t make it back before her community locked itself down.

The virus is hovering at the edges of Aboriginal communities on traditional lands, and in towns and cities, looking for a way in. On March 21, a couple in their sixties returned from a South African holiday via Singapore to Darwin, where they later tested positive. On March 22, a police officer and his wife returned from Austria via Melbourne. They flew to Yulara (near Uluru) and then drove 600 kilometres to their home just outside the Aboriginal community of Harts Range, the other side of Alice Springs, stopping for petrol and snacks along the way. They both became sick and tested positive. The NT closed its borders on March 24, the same day the Kimberley recorded its first two positive cases (in Broome). Two days later, a Queensland woman returning from London through Darwin presented for mandatory quarantining at Royal Darwin Hospital, where she also tested positive. At midnight that night, the federal government’s Biosecurity Act restrictions – which prohibit non-essential travel to remote communities, and which impose mandatory 14-day quarantine for people who do need to enter them – took effect.

Since midnight on Tuesday, when March became April Fools’ Day, Western Australians have been divided into nine intrastate regions. Police, army and emergency services volunteers are stationed at crossings to prevent people from moving across “borders”. (Miners are among the many “essential worker” exceptions.)

Within less than 24 hours of that extraordinary measure came the confirmation that everyone had been fearing. Five health workers in the Kimberley region had tested positive: one in Halls Creek, one in Kununurra and three in Broome. All three towns are hubs for people from surrounding communities and outstations, who come in to get treatment and supplies. Given the long incubation period of this virus, who knows where it’s already spread.


There’s no shortage of critics who have deplored Australia’s response to COVID-19 as slow and ineffective. But testing rates are high, and all but a tiny minority of confirmed cases have either come into cities via planes or boats, or are directly linked to cases that did. The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has been tracking and tracing each new case, and how transmission occurred. As the virus began to transmit within Australia, restrictions have tightened. The number of new cases each day stabilised over the past week and is now falling. “Unlike countries such as Italy, Spain or Iran,” wrote deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly on March 28, “we have remained ahead of the curve.”

But many Aboriginal people are, to a very great extent, at the mercy of governments whose role is central in preventing COVID-19 from spreading to them in the first place. This is not a typical expression of neo-colonial disempowerment of the kind that governments and courts routinely convey. It is quite likely a matter of life and death.

As things stand, Aboriginal communities are locked down. Health centre staff are stretched thin since Australia closed its borders, and food security is a concern. The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation and Outback Stores, which operate most community stores in the NT, say they’re ahead of the game. Families and communities are supporting each other, and spreading the message about handwashing and social distancing.

But IGA stores in Kimberley centres like Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing are struggling to stock supplies due to panic buying in cities. Many Aboriginal people who are living in poverty in towns and cities, including in prisons – where their over-representation has grown to such an absurd level that the disparity between black and white imprisonment rates is six times larger than in the United States – are at significant risk. If and when coronavirus begins its transmission through these communities, what’s the plan? SA Health has reportedly refused a request that 30 elders and vulnerable people evacuate from the APY Lands to an empty Adelaide boarding house so that they can self-isolate and be closer to medical help if they need it. “It’s actually a luxury to self-isolate in cities … when you are not [below] the poverty line,” APY Council chair Sally Scales told the ABC.

The NT now has 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time of writing, all acquired overseas. The north is awaiting its inevitable spread. The Army Medical Corps – which could assist with food distribution, health centre staffing, and even temporary accommodation in tents and cabins – hasn’t been deployed, and is necessarily (given quarantine restrictions) two weeks behind any decision to deploy, if and when it’s made.

Is there a plan?

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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