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Recent Covid-19 outbreaks have prompted Territorians to get vaccinated, but the cases tearing through Indigenous communities highlight broader inequalities – and the damage done by deliberate misinformation. By Anna Krien.

Territory Covid-19 outbreaks highlight housing failures

Rona Lawrence (left) and Marita Wilton from Ripple Effect Band.
Credit: Tanja Bruckner

Ripple Effect Band is an all-female eight-piece group from the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land. They sing in the languages of their people – Ndjébbana, Burarra, Na-kara and Kune – and are heavily influenced by what is known in the Top End as “saltwater rock”. The band is also proudly vaccinated.

“I was nervous at the start,” admits 28-year-old drummer and guitarist Tara Rostron. “My grandma got vaccinated immediately and wanted me too as well, but…” She tapers off, before explaining there were videos on Facebook showing people with knives and spoons sticking to their heads, claiming the vaccine made people magnetic. Or that it was a medical experiment, that it made you sick.

There were false starts. The band’s bassist, Rona Lawrence, would announce with her cousins “We’re going!” and stride down the street of their home town, Maningrida, 500 kilometres east of Darwin. On the way to the clinic, though, they would bump into a group of people who would change their minds. This happened several times.

Eventually, after lots of talking, all eight band members lined up twice and are now fully vaccinated. “My grandma phoned me right after I got my second needle,” says Rostron. “It’s like she knew. I said I felt sleepy and she started laughing at me!”

It is well documented that an outbreak is the best way to boost vaccination rates. The past four weeks have seen Territorians outpace the national rate for first doses, as the NT government fights to contain its first very real Covid cluster, with Katherine and surrounding Indigenous communities in lockdown.

The virus arrived in Darwin on October 29 when a 21-year-old woman from Cairns failed to mention on her NT border entry form that she had recently driven to Melbourne.

In her wake, the woman left a string of lockouts and lockdowns from Darwin to Katherine as the exposure sites stacked up.

An unvaccinated man who worked at Katherine’s Tindal RAAF Base carried the disease to the Big Rivers region where the township of Katherine services a vast area of tiny towns, remote communities, homelands and homeless. From there, clusters broke out like spot fires.

At first, the virus jumped from households to petrol stations, bowsers to grocery stores, the hospital to the court, out to Binjari and Rockhole, which are two Indigenous communities 16 kilometres south-west, then vast distances, to Robinson River community 773 kilometres away, then eight hours west into the desert community of Lajamanu. Close contacts were intercepted 1287 kilometres away in Central Australia’s Yuendumu, another among five prisoners being escorted to Darwin Correctional Centre.

In all these locations – bar Darwin prison – vaccination rates were miserably low. And in all these places there are severe issues around crowded and dilapidated housing, homelessness and, in the case of Katherine, a public housing waitlist that is eight years long.

 

Pat Turner grew up in the Territory. An Arrernte and Gurdanji woman, Turner is the chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). She understands the unique challenge in chasing down a virus across 1.42 million square kilometres, particularly in the case of many desert communities where borders are porous.

But while the emergency response has been impressive, Turner believes there has been a failure at both territory and federal levels when it comes to tackling the most obvious issues at hand – poverty, shoddy infrastructure and overcrowded houses.

Repeatedly since March 2020, her organisation has warned governments of the specific vulnerabilities faced by Indigenous Australians in the case of Covid-19. The warnings have been, she says, “entirely accurate because it is entirely predictable”.

The reality is Covid-19 isn’t the first infectious disease to sweep through remote communities and it isn’t the only health emergency. Rheumatic heart disease is responsible for the widest gap in life expectancy and is caused by the contagious streptococcal bacteria that can lead to acute rheumatic fever, then heart disease.

To Alice Springs-based specialist physician Dr Simon Quilty, who is studying the effects of climate change on remote Indigenous communities, it is infuriating. Not only the presence of a mostly preventable disease, but also the response.

“We know exactly what to do to cure rheumatic heart disease – provide appropriate housing that is not overcrowded and it will disappear. Instead we spend millions of dollars on research to develop a vaccine for it, potentially enabling our society to do nothing about the real issues of housing.”

In Quilty’s eyes no one needs a pandemic to point out what these issues are. The cracks in the territory were well known long before Covid-19 seeped in.

 

Next week it is expected the town of Katherine will emerge from lockdown.

Drive in on the bridge over Katherine River and you’ll see someone has scrawled “Jesus Loves Nachos” in white letters on the rusted metal siding of the old railway bridge. The message is at least a decade old now but still visible. You’ll also notice the dozens of people sleeping rough. Katherine has the unenviable title of the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country.

In 2020 a survey conducted at the Salvation Army’s Katherine Doorways Hub revealed 94 per cent of people who had come into town for a medical appointment were sleeping rough, be it in the long grass, down by the river or on the streets, or were crammed into already crowded houses.

In Darwin, there are the camps in parks. Beside the highways and obscured by scrub, there are camps made with tarps and hammocks tied between sand palms. In Alice Springs, they’re in the riverbed.

It is hard to know how many of these homeless people have been vaccinated. To date, there are at least 11 remote communities in the territory with a vaccination rate below 30 per cent and four of these are below 20 per cent.

In Ali Curung, Derrick Walker makes his way to the shop, a busy grocery store that is next to the Warrabri Bakery. Walker has four children and eight grandkids. Most, he says, have been fully vaccinated. But so far he and his peers at the health clinic have been able to get only 24 per cent of those eligible for the vaccine over the line.

“We set up a clinic outside the shop to talk to people,” he says. “Answer their questions and try to make them feel safe.”

Summer is ceremony time in Central Australia, but with the border set to open Walker is concerned. “Lots of business happens,” he says, “but this time we going to try to talk people out of it. There’ll be a lot of arguing. But we need to stay still.”

It is not clear whether Walker will be able to persuade his community to sit tight.

In the face of growing concerns that remote communities won’t make 80 per cent coverage before the deadline, the NT government has introduced additional measures that so far include mandatory vaccination certification, rapid antigen tests and seven days of mask-wearing for visitors. All of this will be unlikely to suffice if people start moving around for cultural business.

Refusing to blink, the Gunner government is adamant borders will reopen on December 20.

 

During the past 18 months in the Northern Territory, Indigenous people have met the grim spectre of death – the immediate delivery of body bags, discussion of mass graves at local cemeteries, suggestions that refrigerated shipping containers and local meatworks might be used as mass mortuaries. They have done so with humour.

In the remote community of Wadeye, Captain Sanitiser was born, an Indigenous superhero who tackles the virus, which is played by another Indigenous man who has toothpicks sticking out of his face. Online, the video for a Covid-inspired dance song – “Wash Your Hands”, featuring Saltwater Band singer Manuel Dhurrkay and kids from Arnhem Land – took off as well.

Throughout, the diversity of languages has been on show, both on Country and in the mainstream, as Aboriginal groups, Indigenous media and radio stations have kept the heat on in remote areas, while local ABC has delivered reporting in Warlpiri, Kriol, and Yolgnu Matha, and the NT government has produced health information in 17 languages.

Back in Maningrida, Arnhem land, where footy training is played mostly barefoot, the past fortnight has seen a garage sale of mangoes to raise funds for a funeral, a local man offering a reward for the return of a beloved stolen knife, no questions asked, and what is, hopefully, one last push to get everyone vaccinated before the Northern Territory opens its borders. “The Mala’la Health Service,” says Tara Rostron of Ripple Effect Band, “they’ve been having sausage sizzles, raffles.”

Jodie Kell, the band’s guitarist, says the Aboriginal health group has been getting around and going out bush from the get-go, sitting beside evening card games to ensure everyone is kept in the loop about the virus and the vaccine. Charlie Gunnaburra, a local Indigenous man, has been leading the push. Rostron says he is regularly hanging out the car window with a megaphone, calling people down to the clinic. “He’s been a health worker for 40 years,” Kell says. “People trust him.”

And so, despite the odds, people are getting on with things. As for Ripple Effect Band, they’re about to record an album and plan to tour next year. It will be a chance for people to hear Jolene Lawrence sing “Hunting Song” in Na-kara, an endangered language that only a handful of elders can speak fluently. Lawrence wrote the lyrics with her grandma and aunties.

It is said that these remote languages, the depth of culture they stem from and the fragile health of those who speak them, make the Covid-19 vaccination rollout in the Northern Territory critical – and it is. But as Simon Quilty stresses, let’s not go pretending that a vaccine rollout is the only preventive tool in the box. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "Vaccines and the ripple effect".

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Anna Krien is a Melbourne writer and journalist. Her most recent book is the novel Act of Grace.