Australia’s peak Aboriginal health group, representing hundreds of health care services, wants state and territory governments to make urgent arrangements to protect Aboriginal people in remote areas who are highly vulnerable to Covid-19.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (Naccho) said governments should consider deploying the army in remote areas, where health workers face major challenges in containing any outbreak, including a lack of access to equipment, testing and urgent emergency care.
“Everybody has to step up, that’s how serious this is,” the Naccho CEO, Pat Turner, said.
“State and territory governments need to do everything they can to stop this getting into our communities. If this gets into any remote community, there will be a high rate of deaths. Our communities will be devastated, because of the already low levels of health.
“The army is our friend in this situation. They have the necessary resources, and we should be briefing army health co-ordinators and have them on standby to be deployed [to places that] we have difficulty reaching, helping us manage this pandemic,” Turner said.
Remote-area health workers urgently need more personal protective equipment, she said, after receiving reports that clinics in the Kimberley region of Western Australia had received only two sets each of masks, gloves and gowns for healthcare staff to use.
Turner said the equipment is essential for remote workers because timely testing is not available and they are relying on clinical diagnosis of Covid-19.
“It can take up to two weeks for tests to be returned, and in that time, if someone has it, the whole community will get it,” Turner said.
Local and state governments must prepare isolation and quarantine centres, she said, because “self-isolation is just unrealistic where there’s overcrowding in housing because of decades and decades of government neglect.
“Local and state governments need to be working with local communities to identify structures that can be adapted for isolation, and they need two kinds: one for suspected cases, and the other for people who are known to have it.”
Naccho is providing a briefing for the Aboriginal taskforce on Covid-19, which will report to the national cabinet tomorrow.
“The national cabinet meeting tomorrow should realise the seriousness of this for Aboriginal Australia and make sure the necessary resources are provided immediately,” Turner said.
“We need information urgently on what to do in every situation. Our health services need to know.”
Naccho represents 143 Aboriginal community-controlled health services across the country.
On the weekend, the Northern Land Council (NLC) suspended all existing non-essential permits to visit Aboriginal lands, and said it won’t grant any new ones until further notice.
“The NLC has received many calls from community members asking that we do all we can to ensure the safety and protection of Aboriginal people,” the CEO, Marion Scrymgour, said.
“This decision will not affect the permits issued to doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, council workers and others that provide essential services for Aboriginal people out bush,” she said.
The NLC and Naccho have both called on the federal government to consider the concerns of the traditional Aboriginal owners of Kakadu national park, who say it should close immediately. Parks Australia has been contacted for comment.
On the Tiwi Islands, the weekend’s AFL grand final and art fair, which usually draw thousands of visitors, were closed to outsiders.
The Northern Territory government said it is implementing current national advice for self-isolation of 14 days for all international arrivals and a ban on cruise ships for 30 days. Government schools across the Northern Territory will remain open.
It has produced health announcements in nine Aboriginal languages, including Warlpiri and Yolngumatha, and set up a hotline for territory residents: 1800 008 002.
There is one confirmed case of Covid-19 in the Northern Territory: a tourist who is currently in Royal Darwin hospital.