Lockdown threatens remote Indigenous communities

Aboriginal leaders in the state’s Gascoyne and Mid-West regions are calling for more action from the federal government to protect vulnerable, remote communities from COVID-19.

Meeangu Wajarri Aboriginal Corporation’s Dwayne Mallard says a lockdown in areas like Burringurrah and Pia will harm the community.

Burringurrah is home to just over 100 people. Photo: Michael Schweiger.

“We don’t even have a clinic, we don’t have suppliers or personnel to address basic needs around chronic disease, let alone a coronavirus outbreak,” says Mr Mallard.

He says the communities don’t have their own food store for basic supplies and hygiene products, so people have to travel at least 400km to the nearest town.

“Pia does not have a medical clinic … a doctor visits the community once a month.

“How can these communities go into lock-down and manage chronic disease, detox and emotional well-being, let alone a COVID-19 case?” he asks.

Members of these remote communities travel at least 400km to the nearest town. Photo: Michael Schweiger.

Mr Mallard says the Federal Minister for Health’s recent speech is concerning for Indigenous people in remote communities.

“Greg Hunt said the government will fight for the life of every Australian, but how can that be guaranteed when we’re basically going to be sitting ducks?

“[The government] wants to collaborate with the private health sector [and] boost the capacity of hospitals to fight coronavirus, but these communities don’t have hospitals.”

Mr Mallard is calling on Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt to orchestrate a national response for all remote communities, to ensure there is a baseline response on how to safeguard Aboriginal people.

“There needs to be a magnitude that protects the community and maintains the intentions of state and federal government leaders which is to safeguard our most vulnerable and fight for the lives of every Australian.”

There is concern Aboriginal people are highly vulnerable to coronavirus. Infographic: Amelia Searson.

In less remote areas like the South-West, there are different levels of concern over how a total lockdown will impact Aboriginal communities.

South West Aboriginal Medical Service health programs manager Nicole Bowser says they are supportive of the government’s current approach.

“The government is being supported by medical experts to work on what’s best.

“For the South-West region specifically… limiting the travel between regions is a measure to try and protect people… so we will go in line with what the government is suggesting.”

The rate of COVID-19 cases in the South-West. Image: Supplied.

She says a major concern for SWAMS is how the outbreak is impacting Indigenous people’s mental health.

“This is a really high stress time and we can see an increase in mental health needs for things like anxiety or depression, ” says Ms Bowser.

“SWAMS has a culturally appropriate mental health service and there are many other organisations Indigenous people can get into contact with, like Lifeline.”

She says SWAMS is trying to encourage people who are feeling lonely or isolated to reach out and get support which could help to manage any long-term repercussions from the crisis.

The WA Department of Health was unavailable for comment.

Aboriginal Medical Health Services Bunbury in the South West ...
SWAMS provides healthcare services tailored for Aboriginal people. Image: Supplied.

If you need to talk to someone about your mental health, you can call:

South West Aboriginal Medical Service: 9726 6000

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Headspace: 1800 650 890