Government warned of Indigenous ‘blind spots’ in coronavirus response

Government warned of Indigenous ‘blind spots’ in coronavirus response

Australia’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has overlooked the fact the majority of Indigenous Australians live in urban areas, according to an expert report, which found some families could not even access basic items like hand sanitiser.

Key points:

  • The Government was warned the current system has “blind spots” that could lead to greater risks
  • The report warned against the “misperception” that most Indigenous people live in remote communities
  • Indigenous leaders say health messaging needs to be tailored to Aboriginal people

An expert panel of health experts and politicians has found “blind spots” within the system for responding to new COVID-19 cases among Indigenous Australians, that could contribute to a greater risk of outbreaks.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a higher risk of getting coronavirus, because they are more likely to have underlying health conditions like respiratory and kidney diseases than non-Indigenous Australians and less likely to engage with health messaging.

While the Government has isolated remote communities to protect Indigenous people from coronavirus, the National COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee (NCHRAC) report listed the “misperception” that Indigenous people mostly live in remote communities as a concern.

Almost 80 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in urban areas, and Adrian Carson, the CEO of the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health, said the Federal Government had failed to tailor its response to all communities.

“It was definitely a blind spot, there wasn’t much recognition around the needs and specific risks that exist within urban populations across the country, particularly in my hometown of South-East Queensland,” Mr Carson said.

“The Government’s done a great job, there’s no argument there.

“But South-East Queensland is home to 11 per cent of the country’s total indigenous population and I didn’t receive too many phone calls from Canberra checking how we were going.

“I did see a fairly major focus on remote communities, rightly so, but it shouldn’t be at the complete neglect of urban communities.”

The National COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee (NCHRAC) was set-up to provide advice on Australia’s health response to the crisis.

It comes after the same panel revealed concerns about the Government’s dealings with migrant groups, with community representatives telling the panel they were involved in Australia’s COVID-19 response “on an ad-hoc basis or not at all”.

The report concluded there was generally a high risk of outbreaks of coronavirus among Indigenous Australians for several reasons, like high levels of household crowding and problems with screening for COVID-19.

“Barriers to Indigenous people seeking and accessing testing and follow-up must continue to be examined and removed,” the report said.

Lower socio-economic status was another reason for heightened concerns about Indigenous people.

Headshot of Daniel McAullay.

Daniel McAullay said the coronavirus response had a “blind spot”.(Supplied)

“Poverty in some Indigenous communities will mean that it is more difficult for families to buy hand sanitiser, face masks, disinfectant and soap,” the report states.

Associate Professor Dan McAullay, from Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Improving Health Services for Aboriginal Children, said that was deeply concerning.

“Overcrowding, more chronic disease, less access to sanitiser — if you can get hold of it, and if you can afford it, less likely to have hot water and electricity and hot water in some instances — those are underlying reasons for a lot of health issues a lot of Aboriginal people are experiencing,” he said.

The report said the higher risk of outbreaks meant Indigenous people in all communities should have improved access to tests.

An Australian Clinical Laboratories worker in Perth places a nasal swab into a vial for COVID-19 testing.

The report notes the importance of testing for Indigenous communities.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Dr McAullay said that had already started to happen in some areas.

“The more Aboriginal people have access to testing and the more testing we do, the better we are at understanding whether we have problems in certain cities or towns,” he said.

Need to tailor messages to community: leaders

The panel acknowledged the work of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) in their “focus on preventing, supporting and managing COVID-19 in their communities”.

However, it said many ACCHSs had also not been notified about testing results related to their patients, describing that as a “missed opportunity”.

Lesley Nelson in an office.

Lesley Nelson said messaging to Indigenous communities needed to be improved.(Supplied: South West Aboriginal Medical Service)

“These ACCHSs should, where possible, be the lead agency in contact tracing and community engagement around outbreaks of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

South West Aboriginal Medical Service CEO Lesley Nelson said a large part of that work was deciphering campaigns from Canberra.

“These messages have to be customised to and tailored to the Aboriginal community to ensure we minimise any risk here, going forward.”

She said that work was crucial in ensuring Indigenous Australians don’t miss out on vital health information.

Indigenous Australians a priority population

A spokeswoman for the Federal Health Department said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities would continue to be a “priority population” in its coronavirus response plan, citing its move to isolate remote communities.

“There have been no known COVID-19 cases in these areas across Australia. This was identified from the outset as one of the greatest risks and the partnership with indigenous communities has been one of the most significant successes of the COVID-19 response to date,” the spokesperson said.

“There have been 60 cases and no deaths associated with COVID-19 reported in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

This is a significantly lower rate of infection than the average rate of infection across Australia.”

But Lesley Nelson said more funds could be provided to ACCHSs to ensure Indigenous Australians remain educated and informed.

“We are still a long way off yet,” she said.

“There are cases emerging from Victoria and how do we ensure our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country are able to halt the spread of the virus?

“There needs to be an injection of resources to equip many community controlled organisations to do that work.”

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