23 November 2021

SUBJECTS: COVID outbreak in Katherine and Robinson River; Northern Territory.


RUBY JONES, HOST: Malarndirri, the current COVID 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 MCCARTHY, LABOR SENATOR FOR THE NORTHERN TERRITORY: 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.
JONES: Are you able to tell me a bit about what they know of how they caught COVID?
MCCARTHY: My understanding from the discussions with my family members is they just feel they caught it somewhere in Katherine. There is really no sense of from who or where. They can only guess a couple of locations and a couple of people. But otherwise, they really don't know.
JONES: And the outbreak, these first cases were detected at Robinson River in the Northern Territory, can you tell me what it is like there?
MCCARTHY: 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 100 kilometres 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 Garrwa , the Marra,  Gurdanji  peoples. Robinson River is largely Garrwa, but also Waanyi which moves across the traditional cultural lines which move across through to Wollogorang, Hells Gate and across to Doomadgee.
JONES: In small communities like this everyone would know each other and would visit each other’s houses pretty regularly?
MCCARTHY: Oh, absolutely. You know, we're very social creatures and, well, all people I would like to think are social creatures. But First Nations people have large family groups and are 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.
JONES: 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, cn you talk me through your understanding of that in relation to this current outbreak?
MCCARTHY: 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 Labor 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.
JONES: The outbreak in the Northern Territory is now spreading across a number of remote communities. How worried are you at this moment?
MCCARTHY: Extremely concerned. I'm so, so extremely concerned about what this Delta strain is now doing. Not just in Katherine, not just at Binjari and Rockhole communities, but right across the Northern Territory. 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 when this second lockdown occurred. So in that nine day period, COVID may have spread right across the Territory, indeed, even across the borders
JONES: Malarndirri, in many of the communities impacted by the current outbreak in the Northern Territory, the vaccination rate is much lower than the national average. In some areas less than one in five people are fully vaccinated. Can you tell me why that is?
MCCARTHY: 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 Kalkarindji 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’ve received, either through social media or through close relatives or friends who have also heard and been misinformed about the vaccine.
JONES: Are you able to tell me more about the nature of the misinformation that’s being shared, the platforms people are seeing it on, where it comes from and what kinds of things are being said.
MCCARTHY: 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 are 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 has not happened here in the Northern Territory. Then you've got really extreme views that are coming from Christian groups. I don't really like saying Christian groups because there's nothing Christ-like about what they're saying. 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 lifesaving vaccine, which is the COVID vaccine. These messages from these certainly right-wing Christian groups hasn't helped at all.
JONES: 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?
MCCARTHY: 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? Not much occurred, unfortunately, towards First Nations media directly until September. So you've got this massive gap from February to September, which was filled by these negative messages. So the horse had bolted by the time some of the First Nations organisations received 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.
JONES: What are the other barriers right now to containing the virus in the Northern Territory. I’m thinking here about people who might not get tested out of a fear of being blamed for spreading COVID-19.
MCCARTHY: 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 regions was that, you know, ‘you brought COVID in’ and we've had to and I certainly had to do this, and 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.
JONES: 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 head on and say well, anyone can catch it including my family.
MCCARTHY: Precisely, Ruby. 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.
JONES: Malarndirri, thank you so much for your time.