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The Northern Territory managed to only record a handful of cases and avoided any deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now the NT is on the brink of a public health crisis.

The towns the pandemic just hit



The Northern Territory managed to only record a handful of cases and avoided any deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now the NT is on the brink of a public health crisis. 

An outbreak in the town of Katherine is spreading to remote communities across the territory.

And almost everyone who has tested positive so far is Indigenous.

Today, Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, Malarndirri McCarthy talks about her family who were some of the first people impacted by the current outbreak, and how a poor vaccination strategy combined with misinformation created the conditions for this impending crisis. 

Guest: Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, Malarndirri McCarthy.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread worldwide - one Australian region managed to only record a handful of cases and avoid any deaths: The Northern Territory.

But now the NT is on the brink of a public health crisis.  

Archival tape -- News report:
“The Northern Territory’s first case of community transmission has set the town of Katherine into lockdown for 72 hours.” 

RUBY:
An outbreak in the town of Katherine is spreading to remote communities across the territory.

Archival tape -- News report:
“9 new cases have been recorded in the northern territory of COVID 19, all Indigenous people.” 

RUBY:
And almost everyone who has tested positive so far is Indigenous.

Archival tape -- News report:
“In many ways, the west nightmare of the northern territory government, and that is an outbreak that is affecting the northern Territory’s indigenous population.”

RUBY:
Today, Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, Malarndirri McCarthy talks about her family who were some of the first people impacted by the current outbreak… and how a poor vaccination strategy combined with misinformation created the conditions for this impending crisis. 

It’s Tuesday, November 23.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Malarndirri, the current COVID 19 outbreak in the Northern Territory affects you not just because you represent the territory as a senator, but because several of your family members were identified as some of the very first cases. So first of all, how are they?

MALARNDIRRI:
I've been speaking to my family members over the weekend and they are in the right place in terms of the Howard Springs quarantine facility. And they are still experiencing Covid effects. And it's still a little way to go, but it's always good to be able to talk with them each day. 

RUBY:
And are you able to tell me a bit about what they know of how they caught COVID? 

MALARNDIRRI:
My understanding from the discussions with my family members is they just feel they caught it somewhere in Katherine. 

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“Today We also received a positive COVID 19 test in a 30 year old female who is a household contact with the man I've just told you about.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
There is really no sense of from who or where 

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“We are treating her as having been infectious in the Robinson River community since November 11.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
They can only guess a couple of locations and a couple of people 

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“This is undoubtedly the most serious update I've had to give you since the start of the pandemic because it involves a case in a remote community.”

MALARNDIRRI:
but otherwise they really don't know. 

RUBY:
And the outbreak - these first cases - were detected at Robinson River in the Northern Territory. Can you tell me what it's like there?

MALARNDIRRI:
Robinson River is in the Gulf country. It's near a town called Borroloola. Borroloola is the large service town with over a thousand people or more, depending on what time of year it is. Robinson River is over 100ks east of Borroloola, and it's a small community of around 300 people who live there. And it's part of the language groups that we have. We have four language groups who are all interconnected. The Yanyuwa the Mara and the good energy peoples. Robinson River is largely GAWA, but also one which moves across the traditional cultural lines through the wool growing Hells Gate and across to Doomadgee.

RUBY:
And in small communities like that - everyone would know each other, and visit each other regularly? 

MALARNDIRRI:
Oh, absolutely. You know, we're very social creatures and, well, all people I would like to think is social creatures. But First Nations people have large family groups and naturally communicating and visiting and talking and interacting constantly. And that's what we're seeing here is the constant interaction, which the downside of that can mean a constant infection. 

RUBY:
And in terms of the way that Covid-19 the way that we know that it spreads and the housing situation in large parts of the Northern Territory. Can you talk me through your understanding of that in relation to this current outbreak? 

MALARNDIRRI:
We have incredible overcrowding, not just in Northern Territory communities and homelands, but we also have it across Australia. 

The question then, is how do they isolate if even just one of them has to isolate in such overcrowded housing? 

This is something the First Nations Labour caucus raised last year when the pandemic began. The concerns around housing and our concerns around people's ability to isolate away from their families so that they didn't infect them. 

RUBY:
And the outbreak in the Northern Territory, it's now spreading across a number of remote communities. How worried are you at this moment? 

MALARNDIRRI:
Extremely concerned. I'm so, so extremely concerned about what  this delta strain is now doing,

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“Because we still don't know how it went from that small first cluster to no cases for nine days and then a second cluster that came from the first.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
not just in Katherine, not just been Jari and rock whole communities, but right across the Northern Territory. 

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“There is a very real possibility that there are people in Katherine who have COVID and either don't know it or don't want to know, and those people have been spread it in the to the community. If that is what actually happened, best case scenario we got lucky it hasn't spread any further than what we have caught so far.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
The advice we've received in recent days from the Chief Health Officer is that there is a nine day lag between when the first lockdown occurred in Katherine to win this second lockdown occurred. 

Archival tape -- Michael Gunner:
“Worst case scenario This has been silently spreading for a week and we are a day or two away from discovering a disaster. The only way to get to the bottom of this is by testing the hell out the Katherine community.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
So in that nine day period, Covid may have spread right across the territory, indeed, even across the borders. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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RUBY:
Malarndirri, in many of the communities impacted by the current outbreak in the NT the vaccination rate is much lower than the national average. In some areas less than 1 in five people are fully vaccinated. Can you tell me why that is? 

MALARNDIRRI:
Well, there's no doubt different reasons for low vaccination rates. I mean, I drove right across the Northern Territory, in particular across the western desert from Calgary, new down to Lajamanu and into Yuendumu. And there are varying thoughts of why people would take the vaccine. Some of it could be as simple as just complacency - I'll do it when I'm ready, or I'll do it when I next go into town to the worst case sort of end of the scale where people just outright refuse to take the vaccine based on misinformation that they received, either through social media or through close relatives or friends who also heard and been misinformed about the vaccine. 

RUBY:
And are you able to tell me a bit more about the nature of the misinformation that's being shared, the platforms that people are seeing it on, where it comes from and what kinds of things are being said? 

MALARNDIRRI:
Look, I understand a fair bit of it is coming through, possibly YouTube, possibly through Instagram and Facebook. Some of the things that are being said that I have seen people expressing the wrong information, that people have already died from COVID in terms of the vaccine, not the actual disease. That's wrong. That is not happened here in the Northern Territory. 

Then you've got really extreme views that are coming from Christian groups. 

Archival tape -- Day Star:
“Coming up, vaccinations and the dark truth the medical industry isn't telling you. The conversations starts now.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
And I don't really like saying Christian groups because there's nothing Christlike about what they're saying. 

Archival tape -- Day Star:
“Well, we all love our children and we want what's best for them, and many times we follow what our doctors say when it comes to the health of our sons or daughters…”

MALARNDIRRI:
These people who are using the fear of God in ways that are so, so negative and appallingly terrifying that it is encouraging people to stay away from what is a life saving vaccine, which is the COVID vaccine. 

Archival tape -- Day Star:
“We're discovering that some of our doctors suggestions might be based on false or incomplete information. I want to say right at the front of lab doctors. God uses doctors and Luke was a doctor.”

 

MALARNDIRRI:
These messages from these certainly right wing Christian groups hasn't helped at all. 

RUBY:
And why do you think that misinformation like this is impacting the NT and Aboriginal communities in particular? Is it because there hasn't been enough of the right information coming from the government?

MALARNDIRRI:
Yeah, Ruby, I do lament that I do lament that I asked back in February this year with the Department of Health what were they doing to provide messages and communications funding to First Nations media organisations across the country to prepare and be on the front foot about getting the right messaging out about the vaccine? 

Archival tape:
Deputy President: “Senator Dodson”

Archival tape -- Senator Pat Dodson:
“Thankyou madam acting deputy president, Technology is a wonderful thing from Broome. At the very start of its rollout programme, the government identified First Nations peoples as number one priority, a group to be focused in upon and prepared for the virus when it arrived.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
Not much occurred, unfortunately, towards First Nations media directly until September. So you've got this massive gap from February to September, which was fuelled by these negative messages. 

Archival tape -- Senator Pat Dodson:
“To the extent that hesitancy amongst First Nations people is an issue, it's not their fault. The government's bungled and inadequate messaging is the cause of that.” 

MALARNDIRRI:
So the horse has bolted by the time some of the First Nations organisations receive their funding in September, it was way too late. We are way too late now. It has been way too slow and we have not been the priority that the prime minister promised First Nations would be. 

RUBY:
And what are the other barriers right now to containing the virus in the Northern Territory? I'm thinking here about people potentially not getting tested out of a fear of being blamed for spreading Covid-19? 

MALARNDIRRI:
Look, I think the one of the things I did notice last week was the recriminations that began, certainly amongst some of my family members, but even more broadly across some of the region's woes that, you know, you brought Covid in and we've had to and I've certainly had to do this in other First Nations leaders and clan leader groups have had to remind family members that this is not the time to fight one another or argue with one another. 

This is the time when we really do need to pull together. Covid was always coming. It was never a case of if it was just a case of when.

RUBY:
Hmm. I did wonder when I first heard you start to talk about your family members, if part of your reason for talking about it was to kind of address that, you know, head on and say, Well, you know, anyone can catch it, including my family.

MALARNDIRRI:
Precisely. Maybe it was important to get on the front foot not only to ease the fears of my direct family members who had Covid, but also to reach the wider family groups to say, Hey, pull up. You know, this is not the time to blame. And this is not the time to shame. We've got to help one another. 

RUBY:
Melarndirri, thank you so much for your time.

MALARNDIRRI:
No worries, thank you, Ruby

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Thank you. 

Also in the news today,

 

Another two people in the town of Katherine tested positive to Covid-19 on Monday, bringing the Northern Territory cluster to 37 cases. 

 

Four of those people have been hospitalised.

 

Katherine will remain in lockdown for a further 48 hours until Wednesday night as authorities await the results of over one thousand COVID tests conducted in the town and surrounding communities. 

 

And, from the first of December, fully vaccinated visa holders will be able to come to Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption. 

 

Eligible visa holders include skilled migrants and student visa holders as well as temporary working holiday makers and provisional family visa holidays.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Malarndirri McCarthy Labor Senator for the Northern Territory