Emergency nurse and humanitarian volunteer Helen Zahos has been working with COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit in Australia. Zahos grew up on the remote island of Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, which has a large indigenous population. In a recent interview, Zahos warned Australians that “we could see the demise of entire indigenous communities if COVID-19 spreads to these remote areas…”
Australia’s population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (as the country’s indigenous population is often collectively called) numbers over 800,000, approximately 3.3% of the total population. More than 150,000 live in remote communities and homelands, and face major health issues with significant gaps compared with non-indigenous people. Life expectancy is approximately eight years less than for non-indigenous people, and child mortality is higher.
Chronic conditions experienced by indigenous Australians include respiratory diseases, mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Trachoma and rheumatic heart disease are also widespread.
There has been considerable preparation for COVID-19 by indigenous communities, organisations and media across Australia, especially those in remote areas. In Northern Australia, there has been lots of activity to spread information and protect indigenous communities, and there have been calls for ’Elder Protected Areas’, special areas to protect elders and other vulnerable community members.
On April 16, the national government announced that it would invest $AU 3.3 million ($US 2 million) to “establish a rapid coronavirus (COVID-19) Remote Point of Care Testing Program for remote and rural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”
The Northern Territory
The Northern Territory (NT) has approximately 76 remote indigenous communities and 500 homelands (remote areas with small populations living on traditional lands). The NT government has closed off travel to and from indigenous communities, which, however, has also restricted travel to centres such as Alice Springs for medical attention and shopping for essentials.
The Northern Land Council (NLC) has produced messages in 19 languages, including this short film in Pitjanjatjara:
The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) is using its Facebook page to promote safe practices: