1 September 2021: Matter of Public Urgency: Vaccine rollout in First Nations Communities

01 September 2021

The need for Morrison-Joyce Government to stop blaming First Nations Australians and instead take responsibility for its bungled vaccine rollout, the dangerous situation in Western New South Wales and its failure to prepare and protect First Nations communities across Australia from the spread of COVID, including a failure to properly communicate and ensure access to health facilities, food security, adequate housing and isolation places.

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (16:12): [by video link] In early March 2020 the Australian government convened the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 to develop and deliver a national management plan to protect communities and save lives. The four-phase plan developed included: firstly, preparedness; secondly, developing advice on a range of actions to prevent sustained community transmission; thirdly, developing an effective response to outbreaks in communities, including the potential deployment of mobile respiratory clinics; and, fourthly, standdown and evaluation.

Lessons learned from this plan were to be incorporated into future national pandemic planning. In the event of positive coronavirus cases in remote communities, provision was made to evacuate early cases to enable an effective response and limit exposure to other community members. Work was done towards opening GP led respiratory clinics to provide advice and health care to people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms, while reducing the pressure on hospitals and the risk of transmission by visits to regular GP clinics. The advisory group, which became known as the task force, agreed the preparation of culturally appropriate and consistent advice to First Nations health services and communities was a priority.

Obviously, at the start of the pandemic vaccines were pretty much over the horizon, so planning for the rollout wasn't included in the initial planning phase. But the point here is that there was a plan. There was clear communication about the threat of COVID to First Nations people. Communities locked down and took their own initiatives to restrict visitors. The community based and controlled First Nations media organisations rolled out some innovative and creative content to get the message out. The government backed them with a small amount of funding, but what they did with that money was remarkable. Some great ads promoting good hygiene were produced, and jingles and songs were written and broadcast, with community leaders and identities leading the way. They used social media, radio and local leaders to get the facts out and keep communities safe, informing people about the importance of washing hands, keeping 1.5 metres apart and keeping movement to a minimum, and developing new ways to observe cultural obligations like sorry business. The government backed First Nations communities and organisations to get the job done. Community controlled organisations worked together to inform people about the facts. And guess what: until a few days ago we had not lost one elder. Earlier this year, we were celebrating that. In contrast to Indigenous populations in other parts of the world, Australian First Nations people had escaped the pandemic relatively unscathed, with just 147 cases until the start of the year and no deaths.

With all the planning done nearly 18 months ago and with what we knew worked to keep First Nations people and communities safe, all we can ask now is: what the hell happened? Let me tell you: it's not First Nations organisations and people who have dropped the ball and it's not our community controlled health sector; it's not our First Nations media organisations and it's not our housing associations or land councils. They have continued to strongly advocate for the need for adequate vaccine supplies, for health workers to be ready on the ground, for facilities to be set up for people who need to isolate, and for assistance and backing in countering the dangerous misinformation that's getting around.

The Morrison-Joyce government and its ministers keep falling back on the line of vaccine hesitancy. This is their attempt to abrogate all responsibility for the ongoing tragedy that's continuing in western New South Wales. What they say every time they blame vaccine hesitancy for the spiralling caseload is that it's blackfellas' fault for not getting the needle, for believing the stories that are out there and for putting themselves at risk. Well, guess what: I didn't hear them saying that every time a person in Bondi, Byron Bay or the Whitsundays got COVID. I didn't hear the Prime Minister, the health minister or even the Minister for Indigenous Australians saying that those wellness gurus in Byron just needed to overcome their gullible beliefs and their susceptibility to being conned by COVID deniers and just get vaccinated. I don't hear the Prime Minister taking action against members of his coalition who are out there peddling COVID misinformation, directly leading to all kinds of thoughts on vaccine hesitancy. The Morrison government's cowardice in refusing to take strong action against the dangerous lies being spread by their own people, in particular the member for Dawson, is reprehensible. They won't take action because they're too scared he will pack up his bag of conspiracy theories and leave the government facing a by-election. In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, in an interview last month:

If you start prodding the bear, you're going to make the situation worse for us as a government, not better.

And, further:

I'll say that to my colleagues, I can assure you that when you've got a thin margin, don't start giving reasons for a by-election.

The Morrison-Joyce government are happy enough for one of their own to go around promoting vaccine hesitancy. If one First Nations person says they're concerned about getting the needle, because of the misinformation being spread, such as by the member for Dawson, then it's all about First Nations people being foolish enough to believe what is said. It's their fault for putting lives and communities at risk. That's what this government are saying. It's nothing to do with the failures of their own performance and nothing to do with the Prime Minister's failure to deliver on his promise to vaccinate 1b priority groups by winter. Today, on the first day of spring, less than 21 per cent of First Nations Australians have been fully vaccinated.

The Morrison-Joyce government have failed spectacularly to get messages out there countering the misinformation and directly targeting First Nations audiences. At the outset of the pandemic, Labor supported the government's move to fund community controlled First Nations media organisations to produce and broadcast their messages about staying safe. The funding—and it was only about $230,000—supported local broadcasters to produce and broadcast health and safety materials to address local issues, concerns and misinformation. It also helped broadcasters engage the support of local elders and leaders to pass on the importance and the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. It worked. The media organisations developed those messages in their language. They were relevant to their audience and they resonated with the community. They weren't messages devised in a boardroom in Canberra or Sydney and farmed out to broadcasters that no-one understood or listened to.

We knew what works. We knew about the vital role that First Nations community controlled organisations have to play, but the Morrison-Joyce government didn't learn. It hasn't listened and it did not prioritise the health and safety of the vulnerable. Its priorities have been made very clear in this vaccine rollout. This government prioritises the implementation of the harmful and unproven cashless debit card over keeping First Nations communities safe from COVID. The proof's there. This government has translated material about the cashless debit card into 13 Northern Territory First Nations languages. There are ads spruiking the card on First Nations radio. In print there are ads and articles flogging the benefits of the cashless debit card. There are even items in local council newsletters urging people to sign up. Yet, nationally, radio ads about COVID have been translated into just six First Nations languages and only two here in the Northern Territory. There is a woeful lack of relevant community information. It is completely down to this government being totally unable to hear, consult and coordinate with local First Nations organisations.

Vaccine hesitancy is nothing more than a failure of this government to firmly counter misinformation and to implement a comprehensive communication strategy with First Nations communities in First Nations languages. It's shameful that the Morrison-Joyce government sees no issue with continuing to not listen, to not heed, to not plan and to not care for the most vulnerable Australians in this country: First Nations people, people with disability—those that it said it would have vaccinated by the winter. Prime Minister, you had two jobs, vaccination and quarantine, and you have failed.