Introduction by Croakey: The Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector’s responses to COVID-19 have been hailed as an exemplar of best-practice public health, preventing spread of the virus in regions and among populations that could have had catastrophic outcomes.
In contrast to minority populations in many other parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic was prevented from gaining a foothold in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through swift collective, culturally-informed and responsive approaches that were locally-conceived and driven.
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar paid tribute to these unparalleled successes this week in a keynote address to delegates at Indigenous Allied Health Australia’s online conference.
Oscar said the COVID-19 pandemic had offered Australia and the world an alternative vision of self and collective care, rooted in Indigenous ways of being and doing: a new public health that emphasised sustainable economic, social and ecological existences.
We publish her keynote below, with thanks.
June Oscar writes:
Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Yawuru yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngirranggu thangani. Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.
Hello everyone and welcome to the 2020 Indigenous Allied Health Australia National Conference. I am delighted to be providing this opening address today on Yawuru Country, in Broome, Western Australia. I acknowledge the Yawuru people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I would also like to acknowledge the many lands in which you are participating from—from the east to the west, north to the south, from the red centre to the islands of the Torres Strait, we are many nations. These lands hold our spirits, their sovereignty has never been surrendered, and they have always been occupied by our peoples since a time immemorial.
Well, I am sure you all agree, it has been a big year. And that is why this year’s conference theme, ‘Staying Connected, Stronger Together’, is so important. While our new reality keeps us physically distant for the time being, this year’s virtual gathering is recognition of the vital work that you are all doing, and the importance of nurturing our connections.
This year marks my third IAHA conference. The last time I spoke with you all was at the end of 2017 in Perth, not long after I commenced my term as Social Justice Commissioner, and a lot has happened since then.
At that time, I was launching the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) project, the first national engagement process with First Nations women and girls in 34 years. What women and girls shared with me directly over the course of my year-long conversations has constructed the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report 2020 and it feels incredibly special to now announce that the report will be publicly available in the coming days, so keep your eyes peeled. I will talk about this again at the end of my presentation.
In preparing this presentation I was thinking about the last time I stood in front of you all and how proud and inspired I was to see the growing presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals working across such diverse Allied Health roles. I thought, this growing workforce of Indigenous Allied Health practitioners and thinkers is our future.
Whether you undertake your work in rehabilitation facilities, in hospitals or acute care settings, on the sports field, in research institutes, at schools, or in community, your work is important and your ongoing commitment to improving the lives of our peoples is essential. As a member of this collective, you see the world holistically, and you have the skills that are in high demand to drive and lead the changes needed to lift and restore our societal health and wellbeing.
I really wish we could meet face-to-face, so I could tell you in person how much our communities value and thank you for all the work you do.
A new public health
I do want to acknowledge in opening that this year has been tough.
When cases of COVID-19 began to appear within Australia, we knew that if it were not contained it would devastate our communities. That realisation was terrifying.
It is being confronted with this fear, on a global scale — where the pandemic has threatened the social and economic order of nation-states — that I believe the momentum towards a new public health approach is rising. An approach which finally recognises that the health of an individual is dependent on the health of all that surrounds us — our communities, the environment and the interconnectedness of social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political determinants.
This is also an approach which recognises that to support the holistic health of a nation, local and regional control, and decision-making, matters. We saw this happen in Australia.
At the onset of COVID Australian governments finally put their trust in us — those with on the ground local insights and expertise to keep our people healthy. As we have all said time and again, we know what is best for our own health and wellbeing, and that of our families and wider communities. When control is in our hands, when we can exercise autonomy, we succeed.
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community-Controlled Health Services and Organisations acted rapidly, gathering within our regions to deliver culturally-responsive strategies to keep our communities safe, informed and supported.
I congratulate IAHA on their comprehensive efforts to keep members and communities safe during this time, in particular the work of the IAHA COVID-19 Advisory Group, your collaborative partnerships with other Indigenous peaks, and the online yarning sessions provided for members.
As stated by NACCHO: through partnerships, relevant messaging and quick actions, First Nations in Australia developed the most successful prevention strategy in the world.
Let that sink in.
As a result, COVID-19—one of the greatest threats to humanity seen in a generation—has not spread in any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. There is no doubt that we have saved lives. Our self-determination should not just be granted to us in an emergency. It is our inherent right that must be exercised, always.
Imagine what we would achieve if this were the case?
I know for many watching today, you have been involved in keeping our communities safe. It must be acknowledged that much of your hard work has been done in isolating and challenging circumstances, and for many during this time, you haven’t been able to return to our sources of rejuvenation: our family, country and kin.
Across Australia people have experienced the pressures of the COVID-19 restrictions, but our peoples have had to deal with this on top of the additional stressors which have come to characterise our daily lived realities; stressors related to inequality and poverty, of ongoing Sorry Business, chronic illnesses, limited access to health services and poor and overcrowded housing.
As Indigenous Allied Health Workers you live with and respond to this. There is rarely a distinction between your work and your life.
Self and collective care
So right now, at the opening of this conference, I want you all to pause, and take a deep breath, and I want you to spend a moment realising how valued you are and the crucial place each and every one of you has in this world.
In opening this conference my message is that our continued healthy existence as a society is dependent on the love and care we have for ourselves and each other.
In the words of Audre Lorde, a self-described, Black Lesbian feminist warrior poet, I quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation—and that is an act of political warfare”.
I want to emphasise that as First Nations peoples we carry a profound understanding of how to enact and deliver self and collective care.
There is no doubt, in my mind, that this new public health approach sits within our Indigenous conception and lived experience of the world.
And, I am sure, it is not just in my mind that increasingly, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, are questioning the dominant Western systems and whether they are up to the task of keeping us healthy and safe over the long-term, for generations to come.
It is not just the pandemic of 2020 that is making us reconsider the functioning of our societies and economies. The constant threat of climate change made so apparent by the catastrophic bushfire seasons in Australia and North America, and the rising tide of political polarisation and hate speech across the globe, have exposed damaging and unsustainable social and economic practices.
These current global systems are entrenching already endemic inequalities and exacerbating systemic racism and all forms of discrimination.
Within this context, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has re-emerged in full force as one of the largest civil rights movement of our times. Across the globe millions have taken to the streets as part of BLM not just to demand a dismantling of current systems but a reconstruction of systems that can build sustainable economic, social and ecological existences.
To do this people, communities and civil society organisations are looking toward Indigenous and alternative knowledges and ways of being and doing.
Right now, so many peoples from all walks of life are wanting to do what we do best—they want to construct systems of care that leave no one behind and no one vulnerable.
Since a time immemorial our systems of Law have laid down protocols and customs which ensure that every one is accounted for and carries responsibilities and obligations to care for all human and non-human relations.
The measure of success of these values are in our tens of thousands of years of existence.
When I travelled the country with Wiyi U Thangani, I could hear the momentum for change rising up in our women’s voices too. Our women across this nation said that the system is failing us, but this does not have to be, because if you put control back in our hands, we hold the solutions and we will make change happen.
Women and girls spoke to me about their diverse strengths and roles they occupy, which support all aspects of life. They uphold society, providing care, supports and leadership necessary to maintaining societal health, safety and cohesiveness. They spoke of deriving these incredible strengths from their culture, Law and knowledge systems, and how this informs everything they do.
We must support the extraordinary contributions that First Nations women and girls are making every day to Australian society. They are filling the gaps when services and supports are lacking, and too often the knowledge they carry and work they do is unrecognised and unpaid.
Understanding, valuing and centering our women’s worth and work is critical to Closing the Gap, and building a stronger, fairer more equitable and resilient Australian nation.
The report is about to be released and my team and I are gearing up for a second stage. I am committed to responding to the voices of our women and girls and working with governments and our communities to implement the major findings of Wiyi Yani U Thangani.
As I have said throughout this address today, we do not need to look elsewhere for the solutions. They are before us. And now is the time to act. Investment in our systems, in our women, in the lives and work we continuously lead will benefit us all—for our children, families, communities and the Australian nation.
What I would like to stress to you is the important role you play in achieving the changes we all wish to see. As allied health professionals, and particularly as members of IAHA, you are in a unique position to organise, collaborate and advocate, for what absolutely must be our reality going forward.
As a foundational member of the Coalition of Peaks, your voice is critical to the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. You have the opportunity to utilise changing structures and relationships to design, drive and lead the culturally informed policies, programs, services and decision-making agreements our people need.
The Partnership Agreement starts us on a new journey, one which considers health in its broadest sense, and encompasses measures to restore equity, social justice and empowerment.
Our governments must demonstrate their full commitment to working with us and this will not happen unless we hold them to account. We have to seize this moment.
If we have learnt anything from the year gone by it is that the voices from the ground up informs best policy and legislation, so never underestimate what you know, and what you give to our society.
And lastly, once again I remind you as you move forward through an exciting few days of presentations, to look after yourself and one another, because your self-care, self-compassion and healthy survival is the key to our collective transformation.
Dream big, be ambitious and never stop believing that your actions drive the change which will recreate a society which embraces us all.
June Oscar AO is a proud Bunuba woman from the remote town of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
She is a strong advocate for Indigenous Australian languages, social justice, and women’s issues, and is currently serving as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner on the Australian Human Rights Commission