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'The army is our friend' against coronavirus in remote communities, Aboriginal health group says


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.

Who needs to isolate?

The Australian government announced new travel restrictions to try to slow the spread of coronavirus on 15 March. From midnight, all returning Australians and overseas visitors are required to isolate themselves for 14 days after arriving in the country.

People who have been in close contact with somebody diagnosed coronavirus are already required to self-isolate.

What does self-isolation mean?

Self-isolation starts when you arrive in Australia, with the federal department of health recommending you use personal transport, such as a car, to travel home or to your hotel from the airport, to minimise exposure to others.

 “If you need to use public transport (e.g. taxis, ride-hail services, trains, buses and trams), follow the precautions outlined in the public transport guide

 “During the 14 days of isolation, you must stay at home or in your hotel and don’t go to public places including work, school, childcare, university or public gatherings. Only people who usually live with you should be in the home. Do not see visitors.”

 “Ask others who are not in isolation to get food and necessities for you. If you must leave home, such as to seek medical care, wear a surgical mask. If you don’t have a mask, take care to not cough or sneeze on others.”

 “If you live in a private house, it is safe for you to go into your garden or courtyard. If you live in an apartment or are staying in a hotel, it is also safe for you to go into the garden but you should wear a surgical mask to minimise risk to others and move quickly through any common areas.”

What if I feel sick?

The health department recommends monitoring yourself for symptoms including “fever, cough or shortness of breath. Other early symptoms include chills, body aches, sore throat, runny nose and muscle pain.”

 “If you develop symptoms (fever, a cough, sore throat, tiredness or shortness of breath) within 14 days of returning to Australia or within 14 days of last contact of a confirmed case, you should arrange to see your doctor for urgent assessment. You should telephone the health clinic or hospital before you arrive and tell them your travel history or that you may have been in contact with a potential case of coronavirus.”

Limiting the spread at home

The health department recommends practising good hand and sneeze/cough hygiene as the best defence against most viruses.

 It also advises regular cleaning of household surfaces.

 “To minimise the spread of any germs you should regularly wash surfaces that are frequently touched such as door handles, light switches, kitchen and bathroom areas. Clean with household detergent or disinfectant.

Source: Australian Department of Health 

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.

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“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.

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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.



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