A focus on connectedness, culture and collective wellbeing kept Biripi communities safe and supported during the COVID-19 pandemic, on the NSW Mid North Coast.
This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as sponsored content. It was created in collaboration with the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW, which funded the #OurHealthOurWay series.
By October this year Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre was well versed in delivering culturally-appropriate health and wellbeing services to its community under the ‘new COVID-normal’ of social distancing and personal protective equipment.
The second Aboriginal Medical Service to be established in New South Wales 40 years ago, on Biripi Country in the region now known as the NSW Mid North Coast, Biripi ACMC’s philosophy is to foster strong connections to land, culture, spirituality, family and community to support social and emotional wellbeing.
This mandate assumed new urgency as cases of the novel coronavirus gained momentum in Australia earlier this year, explains Chief Executive Officer Lisa Ogolo.
“Despite the restrictions that were put in place, we had to think outside the box to ensure our services were delivered and our community was supported during these tough times,” Ogolo says.
“It was more important than ever to keep on delivering our services to our community.”
Biripi ACMC created an Epidemic Pandemic Policy and a COVID-19 leave policy that provided staff with three days’ leave if they were sick or needed testing, without having to use personal or annual leave to comply with pandemic requirements.
Staff worked from home from March to June but attended online meetings with their teams. Once the employees returned to work they followed COVID requirements, including signing in and having their temperatures checked on arrival.
Masks and hand sanitiser were mandatory for staff and patients in the clinics and for home visits. Pre-screening assessments by phone were conducted before home visits or office and clinic appointments.
Biripi ACMC made extensive use of social media, posting almost daily on its Facebook page: COVID-19 updates, self-care advice and support, clinic updates and community events.
The posts were as simple as motivational words, “Have a good weekend you Mob but stay safe”, to important updates from NSW Health: “November 2.Today marks 190 days since our last local COVID-19 case and there are NO ACTIVE CASES on the Mid North Coast.”
Staff visited Elders weekly to keep them updated on COVID-19 announcements, took them shopping or shopped for them to keep them safe.
“The Elders were a bit anxious during the isolation lockdown period, but they were not alone,” says Cultural Officer Aunty Leapy (Leonie) Morcome.
“They were supported and updated regularly and there wasn’t a decline in their mental health or increase in anxiety or depression. Our Elders were looked after.”
Community and continuity
Providing essential services became important for community engagement and a way to keep a close eye on families and Elders.
Regular fruit and veggie boxes and meat packs are still being dropped off to aged care and Out of Home Care clients. From June to September, case managers made different activity bags for the children who would usually attend the weekly Biripi playgroup and delivered them to their homes.
Health Promotions Worker Aunty Steph Slater ran a healthy eating workshop for registered participants, all socially distanced, with recipe books available to any member of the community.
“We had people who tried legumes for the first time and loved them! And those who don’t like tuna but loved the tuna risotto and want to cook it at home. Practical nutrition education at its best,” she says.
Aunty Steph also manages the Biripi breast screening bus, which rolls into a central location in Taree every year in October making it easier for women to attend the recommended two-year screening.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer for Aboriginal women so the Breast Screen NSW vans are a vital service. More than 360 women have been screened since 2016, and the breast cancer bus will start its COVID-delayed 2020 screening in December.
During COVID-19 the centre still ran a 12-week women’s group to meet and share culture and connect to land, largely held outdoors at Saltwater Beach, a landscape of spiritual significance to the Biripi people.
Perhaps the greatest triumph for Biripi against pandemic odds was ensuring that the annual baby show – a celebrated local institution – was able to go ahead.
The event has pride of place on the community calendar, running for more than 20 years. Each family that enters receives a free professional portrait of their infant and a gift bag of goodies, and the photographs are displayed in Biripi ACMC’s Purfleet clinic as a reminder of the cultural continuity of Aboriginal people on the NSW Mid North Coast.
Child, Youth and Family Case Manager Monique Foster says there was no question of cancelling the baby show but it required some creative thinking from the Biripi team.
“We didn’t want this year’s babies to miss out,” explains Foster. “The baby show started in the late 1990s and has been running continuously since 2001.”
This year, the process was streamlined to ensure it was COVID safe, with each 30-minute session following a precise formula.
“We had the family walking in the front door where they were screened, then to the photography room, have their baby’s picture taken, receive the gift bag and walk out the back door,” Foster explains.
“The cleaners had 15 minutes to clean the photography room and be ready for the next family to arrive.”
Over two weeks in October 52 beautiful babies were photographed from 60 families invited to participate; a resounding success and affirmation of community.
Standing strong today
By November Biripi ACMC was celebrating NAIDOC Week, which was moved nationally from its usual dates in July.
Aunty Leapy worked with Biripi ACMC and local organisations to deliver NAIDOC Week to the community with events for young and old.
She organised Elders and pre-schoolers into vans for the opening car procession from Taree’s Manning Entertainment Centre to Purfleet, with the Aboriginal flag flying proudly from the vehicles.
There were workshops on weaving, dilly bags, clapsticks, spear throwing, Elder yarns, a door decoration competition and a live-streamed ‘Made Deadly’ concert.
Biripi woman Brittany Cochrane’s winning design for the NAIDOC Week art competition interpreted the theme ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ as the obstacles Aboriginal people have had to overcome “to be standing strong today”.
“The footprints represent the younger generation leaving their mark by continuing our culture,” says Cochrane.
“Our culture is still thriving; our people are learning to connect more to culture every day.”
This article was written by Linda Doherty and edited by Amy Coopes, on behalf of Croakey Professional Services. It was sponsored by the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW to share strengths and successes of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations in NSW.
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