FOR INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES
Health equality starts with communities
NOTICE: The information on this page has been developed to improve access to information about COVID-19 that may be helpful to rural, remote and Indigenous communities. Our understanding of COVID-19 is constantly changing and users should regularly consult official government information services. The information on this page is for information only and is not medical advice. If you need general advice on COVID-19 call HealthDirect on 1800 022 222 or visit https://www.healthdirect.gov.au. If you need medical advice talk to your local GP or hospital.
What are the risks for Indigenous communities?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live in remote areas may have a lower risk of coming into contact with people who may have COVID-19.
But if COVID-19 does come into a remote Indigenous community the risk of getting sick or dying is higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because they generally have a higher level of chronic disease.
We know that people who are older or have an existing illness are more likely to suffer more serious health consequences, or die, if they get infected with COVID-19.
This information is based on how the disease has spread in China. The charts below show the proportion of people who died in China who contracted COVID-19 by age groups and by existing illness.
Rural and remote Indigenous people could be at greater risk because of the high rate of chronic disease among residents, and the long distances people live from major medical facilities.
We know that Indigenous people have very high rates of things like heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease (COPD). Because the illness and death rate from COVID-19 is much higher for people who have these diseases, it is really important for Indigenous communities to take COVID-19 very seriously and plan ahead.
How could COVID-19 get into Indigenous communities?
The most likely way that COVID-19 will get into Indigenous communities is:
family members and friends coming to stay in town, or with you, over Easter or at other times;
delivery people or service providers coming into town and coming into contact with residents without taking proper precautions (such as wearing a mask or physical distancing);
a community member going to another town to shop or for work and coming into contact with COVID-19 and then returning.
How can we stop COVID-19 coming into our communities?
It is very difficult to stop everyone who might have COVID-19, or who has been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, coming into your community. The most effective way to stop the spread of COVID is to use physical distancing (2 metres) and good hygiene (e.g. washing hands etc). The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council has developed some really good information to help Indigenous communities to reduce the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
What other options are available to reduce the risk of infection in vulnerable Indigenous communities?
Some Indigenous communities have announced what they call 'lockdowns' to stop people that are not providing essential services coming into town as a way to control the spread of COVID-19.
The term 'lockdown' might suggest to some people that they will not be allowed to leave their town, that residents may be refused entry or doctors may not be able to help people. This is not the case.
A better term is 'Community Health Protection Measures'. In effect, rather than leaving it up to individuals to manage infection, in towns with very high risk factors the community works with the government to create rules to improve health protection.
In most States and Territories, the power to put in place community health protection measures sit with the Health Department.
It is true that some Indigenous controlled councils have implemented protection measures themselves. But this is generally only an option where the community has the legal power to issue permits for access to an area.
For example, the Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council on western Cape York has announced controls on entry to the area to protect people living on the Cape (see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-24/coronavirus-travel-ban-roadblocks-across-remote-far-north-qld/12082414).
The Northern Land Council (Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara) and the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea border crossing region have stopped issuing new permits for visitors and cancelled all non-urgent travel and visits by government and non-government agencies.
Indigenous communities wanting to discuss the option of community health protection measures should talk to their Local Health Network/District or State Health Department about whether this is necessary and the options.