17 November 2021

SUBJECTS: COVID cases in the Northern Territory


FRAN KELLY, HOST: The lockdown in Katherine has now been extended until Monday after nine new COVID cases were recorded yesterday. That follows the two recorded on Monday. All of those new cases are linked to one family, that of Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. The people infected include the senator's sister, as well as her aunts, uncles and cousins. Senator Malarndirri McCarthy joins us now from Darwin. Malarndirri, welcome back to RN breakfast.


SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Good morning, Fran, and good morning to your listeners.


KELLY: Senator, first off, how are all your family members? I understand one of your aunts is in hospital. How is she?


MCCARTHY: Well, look at this stage, the sun's still coming up here, Fran, so I'm hoping to make some calls within the next hour or so to see how people have got through last night. Before I went to sleep last night, you know, family members were still quite anxious. Those that are in Howard Springs at the moment are naturally concerned for each other and for themselves. We got five year old twins who they're watching as well, who who have been infected with COVID. It is a very, very serious time and one we're watching obviously very closely, Fran and quite distressing.


KELLY: Have all of the family members, all of the infected family members relations been evacuated from Katherine or Robinson River to Howard Springs?


MCCARTHY: Look, I understand that there's still plenty more testing to take place, Fran. Clearly, the contact tracing that has to occur is no doubt still occurring both in Katherine but also at Robinson River. So I think this morning we're going to probably hear some more updates as to the outcome of that.


KELLY: Robinson River is, I don't know it. It's it's a community about 1000 kays, I think, from Katherine. How, what kind of community is it? How big is it?


MCCARTHY: Oh, look, it's a beautiful little community. It's, you know, over 300 people, very close kinship, mainly Garrwa people. It's the Yanyuwa Garrwa people in the Gulf country and Mara and Gudanji people but mainly Garrwa and Waanyi. So the community itself is largely family kinship groups. And, you know, they are a very organised community. Vaccinations have been taking place both there and Borroloola. I think the actual community itself in terms of the geography it's it's about, you know, close to two hours drive east of Borroloola and probably about three or four hours drive to the Queensland border to Doomadgee--.


KELLY: So it's pretty remote, but as you say, the vaccination rates - Robinson River first dose vaccination rates at around 77 per cent. Fully vaccinated 60 per cent so so getting there. Do you know if all those who were infected were not vaccinated yet? Some vaccinated, do you know, the stats?


MCCARTHY: Oh, look, I do know the status. I mean, family members have told me if they've been vaccinated or not. Most of them are double vaxed which which I was very pleased to hear. And just encouraging them to stay strong. Some had already gone to try and get a vaccination, and this is where it's been quite despairing, Fran. These vaccinations, as we know, should have occurred earlier this year. And I do put it down to a lot of the communication or miscommunication across the country that has prevented people from vaccinating.


KELLY: Are you talking about vaccination hesitancy? Some of the conspiracy theories, is that were you're talking about?


MCCARTHY: I am talking about that, but I'm also talking about the fact that in February, Fran, myself and the First Nations Caucus of Labor were briefed by the federal health department. And I said at the time, what was their communication strategy? Mindful of the fact that we've got over 100 Aboriginal languages just here in the Northern Territory alone, plus the languages across Australia. And that gap in that communication strategy occurring immediately, I believe, has enabled the social media storm that we've seen with inaccurate information and messaging that has caused quite fearful reaction to the vaccinations.


KELLY: So sorry, just to clarify, you're saying, because there wasn't the health information, the correct information there in in enough languages that it allowed the social media false information to fill the void?


MCCARTHY: That's right, Fran, that's my view. I certainly raised it in February. I know that First Nations media organisations started receiving funding in September, and that's way too slow, way too late. Behind the eight ball and the damage had already set in.


KELLY: The Northern Territory did have a very good record, in fact, all the indigenous communities really of keeping COVID out of remote communities throughout the pandemic. The governments and the communities themselves particularly led this and did very well. This outbreak in Robinson River is the first in a remote community in the Territory. What do you think has gone wrong? Why has this happened so late in this pandemic? It is a bit surprising, given the vax rates are getting up there.


MCCARTHY: Look, I do put it down to communications from from the perspective of a National Comms Strategy, Fran. I do put it down to that and that we needed to get that information out there. In some respects, the fact that that hasn't occurred is a real lost opportunity. But also we're seeing these things happen now, so we're playing catch up. And the good thing, though, however, as you ask me in your early part of the question is that there's certainly the four land councils here in the Northern Territory and the Aboriginal community health sector has worked closely with these communities to try and get them back vaccinated, along with the Territory health clinics.


KELLY: Yeah, which makes this a bit of a blow. There is a team, the Northern Territory government is sending in a team to support, an eight person team, health experts and police to test and vaccinate residents. You know, I'm tempted to say, is that is that too late? But as you say, the vaccine has been there. It's been accessible. It's more about the messaging. I mean, are you aware of some of what you might describe as misinformation has been coming into some of your family members there?


MCCARTHY: Absolutely. I mean, people have had read things online, have also been told things by people around the Territory who believe those things online. That it's no good for you, whether it's related to Christian beliefs, whether it's related to any particular harm or what it can do to you. All of these things that have scared people. You know, you're talking about the devil here, you're talking about this is if you if you trust in God, you won't get infected and then you've got these extreme views that say this is the wrong vaccination anyway. And everyone's a guinea pig. And I mean, on my Facebook page, I do get it, you know, people saying that, you know, I'm promoting the jab death. You know, this is this is what we're combating and we're also combating it with some of the protests that we see with people who just flat out, get angry at you.


KELLY: So right now in Katherine, which is where the nine new infections were. What needs to be done to counter that? I mean, you've you've you've put out in your social media, you know, pleading with people to get vaccinated, just to listen to health advice, ignore the misinformation being spread. What needs to be done? Is it is it teams going around door to door to speak with people? Aboriginal led teams? Is that the way to do it?


MCCARTHY: Absolutely. They need to be door to door. They need to be going around to get people, encourage or take the vaccinations to people where they can. But there also has to be another element of this, Fran, and it's something that I've picked up in the last few days is once the COVID hit in our communities, then there became this sense of shame, you know, and fear that there are going to be recriminations for causing problems. So again, we've got another messaging that has to take place that says, Hey, don't be ashamed. Don't be afraid. Make sure when contact tracers talk to you, tell them everything. Tell them all the people you've been in contact with, because that's so important now because as the chief minister said, it's possibly seeding out across the Territory.


KELLY: So if it is, and certainly there it is, and it quickly infected members of your family who are close household contacts. I'm not sure if they're across one home or two homes, the nine?


MCCARTHY: In the Katherine region, it was one house. And this is the other issue is that overcrowding is a massive problem that we have. And then, you know, my sister flew from my auntie and uncle's house and my cousins' house to to Robinson and then obviously not having somewhere to stay had stayed in three or four houses at Robinson. And those families have had to be tested. So we're, you know, we're talking about 20 to 30 people immediate contacts here.


KELLY: And we're still waiting for those test results?


MCCARTHY: Well, I imagine this morning we'll find out.


KELLY: OK, so overcrowding, you know, we've been doing interviews about overcrowding in Indigenous communities for decades, really, it seems to me. But right now, if there's a COVID outbreak, overcrowding is a is an immediate problem because how can people isolate in a household if there's 10 people in them? So what is the, is there an emergency step that needs to be taken to try and assist people to have somewhere to isolate, as we saw in Wilcannia?


MCCARTHY: Absolutely, Fran. And I think now more than ever - and Wilcannia was a clear case of this - but I don't think anything has actually advanced from that. You see this is the problem; people will deal with something for for the immediate crisis, but then there is no real long term plan when we know that this has been an issue, as you've said, for decades.


KELLY: Well, there's not going to be a long term plan, I suppose, hatched in, you know, two months, but there needs to be does there need to be an immediate emergency response to get extra housing or vans or tents or whatever it is for people in the short term?


MCCARTHY: Look, absolutely we have to be prepared for this as a country, but the overcrowding problem is a massive concern. As I said, we'll find out more today as to what's going on in the Katherine region and those communities and outstations around Katherine along with Robinson River. If we could get housing in there right now, I would be pushing that straight away to the federal government and the Northern Territory government to work on that. But we obviously need the resources to do so. At the moment, the focus is on the actual pandemic, and I just urge the federal government and to those listening in Canberra, we need those houses now.


KELLY: Yeah, OK. Well, let's hope. Let's hope it hasn't spread too far and wide, Senator, and I hope your family stays well. Thank you very much for joining us.


MCCARTHY: Thanks Fran.