Australia moves to protect Indigenous people from coronavirus

Lajamanu is on the edge of the Tanami Desert in Australia’s Northern Territory. Located 11 hours drive south of the region’s capital, Darwin, it is home to the indigenous Warlpiri people and is one of the country’s most remote communities.

Now COVID-19 is adding to its isolation: the only road into the town has been closed, effectively sealing the community of 600 people off from the rest of the world.
“The government sent health workers to Lajamanu to explain about the virus, and we have a good doctor in the community who has been here for a couple of years now,” said Steve Jampijinpa Patrick, a Warlpiri elder. “But people are still quite scared of it, and entry to the community is now closed so no one can come in or out.”

Like elsewhere across Australia and the world, essential services continue in Lajamanu. However, social life has temporarily shut down. The arts centre, a major community hub, has been closed, as has the local youth programme.

“Many people, especially the older ladies, are sad about the arts centre closing, because that’s where they come each day,” Patrick said. “But we know that we need to stay safe from this virus. We are thinking of moving out to camps and outstations near town to try and stay away, but it will be lonely if our friends and family can’t come and visit us.”

With just over 6,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 51 deaths, Australia has so far avoided a catastrophic spread of the virus that causes the respiratory illness. The federal government has put the country on a “war footing” to contain the virus, banning international arrivals and imposing tough curbs on movement across the continent.
However, concerns about the disease’s potential impact on Australia’s Indigenous communities remain high.

Indigenous people, who make up 3 percent of the country’s 24.6 million population, remain below the national average in terms of life expectancy. Those living in remote or very remote communities have shorter life spans than people living in urban areas – partly because social determinants of health, including employment and housing, are far more limited in such places, according to a recent government report .
Isolated communities

These figures are significant, as the most recent census statistics detailed that almost 20 percent of Aboriginal people in Australia live in remote areas, some of which are extremely isolated and have limited access to medical services.

For some, the nearest hospital may be hundreds of kilometres away, according to Dr Jason Agostino, medical adviser to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Lecturer in General Practice at the Australian National University.

“While some residents of remote communities have good access to primary healthcare, the issue with COVID-19 is that many community members will require hospitalisation and ventilation,” he said. “Community members at high risk of complications from COVID-19 will need to be evacuated to regional centres immediately.”

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