Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and people have been hailed for their world-leading response to the coronavirus pandemic which left First Nations communities largely unscathed.
As leading Indigenous researcher Professor James Ward, Director of the UQ Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, and former Australian of the Year and health researcher Professor Fiona Stanley wrote this week:
Little did anyone know that just a few years after the Uluru Statement from the Heart was presented to the Australian government (and rejected), the First Nations leadership would be able to show just how powerful having a voice could be for their health and wellbeing.”
The 2021 Close the Gap Report, released on Thursday to mark National Close the Gap Day, says it’s time for that lesson to be learnt and applied to so many issues that continue to drive health inequities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including racism, climate change, over-incarceration, youth detention, housing, food and income insecurity, health workforce shortages and stresses, and cultural destruction.
Marie McInerney writes:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar says the last 12 months have shown Indigenous Australians have the solutions not just for their own health and wellbeing but for all of society — “to keep families and communities safe, before, during and after a crisis”.
Oscar was launching the 2021 Close the Gap Report, Leadership and legacy through crises: keeping our mob safe, which showcases the strengths of Indigenous responses to the coronavirus pandemic, devastating 2019-20 bushfires and climate change, and to mental health trauma.
“Challenges require leadership and solutions, and this report is overflowing with both,” she told the 2,000 plus people who attended the webinar launch, hosted by the Australia Institute, which saw the #CloseTheGap hashtag trend nationally through the Close the Gap Day event.
“In this report we proudly showcase our strengths, our culture, our leadership and our legacy,” said Oscar, who is co-chair of the Close the Gap Campaign.
She was speaking to webinar participants from Bunuba country, in the Kimberley region, where she said “it’s been pouring rain up there, the flood waters are high, the children are out hunting and fishing”.
“The country is alive,” she said.
Country and culture are central to the report and the Kimberley is one of the regions highlighted for the leadership shown by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and people during the pandemic, with the number of COVID-19 cases among Indigenous people six times lower than for other Australians, no cases in remote communities, and not a single death recorded.
As Oscar wrote in the report:
Some of our homelands, once threatened with closure by governments in the past, became some of the safest places in Australia.”
The relative safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities also ranked as a global success, said Indigenous researcher Professor James Ward, the only Aboriginal member of the Communicable Disease Network of Australia, who was a panellist at the Close the Gap event, which also heard from Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt and Sir Michael Marmot, former head of the WHO Social Determinants Committee.
Earlier this week, Ward, writing with leading health researcher Professor Fiona Stanley, provided the latest figures on the impact of COVID-19, which has devastated many other Indigenous populations globally, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Comprising three percent of the Australian population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would have been expected to make up at least three percent of Australia’s 27,750 cases, or 850 cases, they said. But as at January 2021, there have only been 148 cases nationwide, 15 percent of these hospitalised, one in intensive care and no deaths.
There have been no cases in remote communities and none associated with the Black Lives Matter marches, with a rate of infection for First Nations people of only 0.19 per 1000 people versus 1.12 per 1000 people for non-Indigenous people
“A complete reversal of the ‘gap’,” they said.
Focus on strengths
The difference, says Oscar in the Close the Gap report, was that 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.”
Many of the report’s case studies point to how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and people were, in the pandemic, “permitted” to lead, to drive the agenda and sit at the table with decision-makers, to form valuable partnerships, trusted to communicate best with communities, given flexibility with funding so it got where it was needed, and to be able to act quickly instead of getting tied up in red tape.
The report also points to the power of targeted, tailored, relevant local communications, quoting NACCHO Deputy CEO Dr Dawn Casey on how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations “know where our mob are and how to get the right message out. It doesn’t have to be in Language but in the way mob in a particular region relates to messaging.”
The report tells how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, with long knowledge of the impact of introduced diseases and having both a primary and population health focus and expertise, were among the first in Australia to call for the border closures that proved ultimately so successful in the pandemic.
They included the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress which, according to CEO Donna Ah Chee in the report, did its homework in March 2020 on what was happening around the world and saw how well the Italian village of Vo protected itself with a full lockdown while the rest of Italy was overwhelmed by the virus.
Congress liaised with local communities and, like the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia (recently awarded with the SA Premier’s COVID-19 Safe Aboriginal Community Leadership Award) and the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service, advocated for border closures and regional and community lockdowns.
The Close the Gap report aims to be a strengths-based analysis of success told through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, rejecting deficit-based policies and culturally unsafe systems that reduce Indigenous people and communities to ‘problems’ or ‘statistics’.
But that is not, it says, “a denial or oversight of the external obstacles and restrictions imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – such as systemic racism, short-term funding cycles and poor infrastructure – nor of the dire inequities which exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians”.
It says 2020 exposed underlying risks and pre-existing systemic inequalities, such as housing overcrowding, food insecurity, an inequitably distributed health workforce that was stretched to capacity, racism in the health system and bushfire emergency responses, continued inaction on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, over-incarceration, the Juukan Gorge destruction, cashless welfare card trial, and lack of action on the climate crisis.
Urgently addressing over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including by lifting the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 — which Australia’s Attorneys General last year again failed to do amid the pandemic — is among 15 major recommendations in the report.
It comes amid despair at the news of three more deaths of Aboriginal people in custody just this month, the inquest into the deaths of two boys who drowned in Perth’s Swan River while being pursued by police in 2018 and calls from National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) and families of some of those who have died in custody for the Prime Minister to meet them next month, marking the 30 year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
An estimated 444 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died since in custody but disproportionate incarceration rates may even be increasing.
The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) said in a statement on Thursday the latest prison statistics show that while the number of non-Indigenous people in prison fell by more than seven per cent, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison numbers rose.
Dr Michael Doyle, PHAA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Special Interest Group co-convenor, said the Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia 2020 report shows that the number of non-Indigenous people in prison in Australia was 41,060 on 30 June 2020, a decrease of 2,261 or around 7.3 per cent over 12 months.
By contrast, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison rose by 226 or nearly two percent in the same time, a difference that was “deeply concerning and upsetting to our communities who are absolutely fed up with the widening gap”, Doyle said, urging strong justice targets to be included in Closing the Gap.
The Close the Gap report also highlights the additional trauma and harm that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience in disasters like the 2019-20 bushfires, citing concerns that the needs of Aboriginal people were not on the agenda for mainstream emergency response and recovery programs as the fires blazed along the NSW south coast.
Community members reported poor, culturally unsafe services from some mainstream services and charities during the bushfires “and shocking racist incidents on the ground”, it says, calling for a fully funded and evaluated national strategy to “effectively respond to the systemic racism exposed” by the pandemic, bushfires response, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
And it urges comprehensive climate action, including to address housing, water and food security issues being exacerbated by climate change, with Oscar and co-chair Karl Briscoe saying:
Climate change is suffocatingly real yet our governments’ responses to the hottest of issues, the survival of all Australians and our planet, are tepid responses at best. Our northern homelands are disappearing under rising sea-levels, to the despair of Torres Strait Islander peoples attempting to sustain their communities as they have done for millennia.”
The report’s 15 recommendations also include fully implementing the Uluru Statement and landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) report, fully funding the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and raising the age of criminal responsibility as one measure to address over-incarceration and, in policy and funding, learning the lessons of success from the past year.
“Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to provide the solutions for lasting health and wellbeing outcomes needs to be the legacy of 2020,” it says.
Declaration: Marie McInerney does casual writing and editing work for Lowitja Institute and contributed to the Close the Gap report.