With the impacts of COVID-19 being felt across the country, the Watarrka Foundation has taken significant steps to stop the spread of the virus to our community. It is known that everyone is at risk of contracting the virus, however Indigenous communities are at greater risk due to a variety of health and lifestyle factors. These include higher rates of pre-existing health issues including diabetes and heart disease, limited access to health care services, a requirement to travel for supplies and a reliance on outreach services. Our mission to protect our community from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 reflects a nation-wide action plan, with approximately 150,000 First Nation Peoples living in remote communities around Australia.
Why are our communities so vulnerable?
As detailed above, there are a variety of factors that make communities like ours particularly vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.
Health & Age
COVID-19 attacks and destroys tissue in the lungs and also triggers an overreaction of the immune system, creating dangerous levels of inflammation. Individuals with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to complications as their bodies fight the virus. Diabetes, renal failure, heart disease and respiratory conditions are more prevalent in Indigenous communities than in the general population, therefore making the risk of fatalities higher. In addition to this, people aged 65 years or older are more susceptible to severe illness caused by the virus. This factor poses a significant threat to the elders in our community.
In addition to pre-existing health conditions, the close-knit and interconnected nature of Aboriginal communities increases the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. The contagion effect will be rapid and implementing social distancing and isolation may be challenging.
Access to health services in remote communities is innately more difficult than that of metro areas. The Watarrka region is fortunate to have highly trained heath care professionals and is well stocked with medical supplies. Traditionally, when people in remote areas get sick, they rely on visiting doctors, travel by car to larger towns or, if very ill, are flown out by services such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service. If the virus were to significantly affect our community, access to these services may be limited due to nation-wide demands. Further to this, access to vital saving equipment such as ventilators may also be limited.
The Importance of Food Security
Food security is critical in protecting our community from the impacts of this virus. As explored in last month’s article, the Watarrka Foundation is funding a program titled ‘Feed the Watarrka Community’ in an effort to reduce travel into Alice Springs. Our locals drive into town on a weekly basis to buy food and supplies, so by providing access to these supplies in Watarrka, we will reduce the risk of locals unknowingly bringing the virus back from town. The program is supporting approximately 60 adults and children from the Wanmarra, Lilla and Ulpanyali communities. Wanmarra is being supplied with bulk food supplies including flour, sugar and tea, whilst Lilla and Ulpanyali are being provided with three meals per day, prepared in the Remote Tours Camp kitchen.
Featured above: Watarrka locals receiving a food delivery
What actions are being taken by our Government?
The Federal Government has taken some steps towards preparing remote Indigenous communities for an outbreak. A national Indigenous advisory committee was established with the task of implementing an emergency response plan, co-chaired by National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). Remote community closures and designated biosecurity areas have been actioned, which will limit travel in and out of these areas, with only medical, health, police and education services allowed in. The Federal Government will be making $123 million available over two financial years for targeted measures to support Indigenous businesses and communities in increasing their responses to COVID-19.
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM, MP, states:
"All Australians are beginning to access a variety of supports and we are making sure that the unique issues facing Indigenous Australians are specifically addressed through discrete measures. We have already implemented plans to protect Indigenous health, limit the movement of people into designated areas, and made adjustments to the Community Development Program and other activities funded under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS)."
He goes on to state that the Government will be linking Indigenous businesses with additional support and taking steps to better apply the available Indigenous workforce to industries. Funding will also be provided to regional and remote communities while travel restrictions are in place so they are prepared and responsive to evolving issues that emerge during the crisis.
In the Northern Territory a public health campaign, produced by the Northern Land Council, is under way which includes short videos produced in dozens of Aboriginal languages exploring the theme of “stay on country, care for family”. You can view the campaign here.
How can we work to create a safe environment for our community?
There are some simple steps we can all take to keep our community safe. Respecting travel restrictions, staying home where possible, adhering to hygiene guidelines and implementing social distancing will assist in stopping the spread of the virus. In the Watarrka region, our food program will continue to be implemented until the COVID-19 threat eases. In order to keep the program running, we will be relying on donations through our Go Fund Me campaign.