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COVID-19's unexpected lessons

Commission Commission – General

Six weeks ago I returned to my traditional homeland near Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia.

Thanks to modern technology, I am working remotely and continuing my duties as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

Like many Aboriginal people, I chose to return to country because COVID-19 travel restrictions made homeland communities the safest place to see out the pandemic. As a mature Aboriginal woman, I am statistically at greater risk from COVID-19. It was important to follow the advice of health experts.

An Aboriginal boy looks up at red rock cliffs in soft light

One of June Oscar's grandsons explores her Country near Fitzroy Crossing.(Supplied)

I am also a native title holder in the Kimberley. I have obligations to my community during this difficult time and, as a grandmother, I needed to be here to help my family readjust to living "out bush" again.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have higher levels of pre-existing illness than most other population groups in Australia due to our relative social and economic disadvantage. The shameful legacy of this country’s lingering inability to close the gap in healthcare equity for our people means we are susceptible to more severe impacts from COVID-19.

Keeping our people away from virus hotspots is critical to our survival.

A huge peacetime effort

Thanks to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations such as Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, Danila Dilba Health Service and many others, our people have returned to communities and to camps on country, quickly and en masse. This has been a huge peacetime coordination effort, and we have mobilised quietly and efficiently to move thousands of people out of harm's way.

Indigenous health services and peak bodies like the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation have done an incredible job of getting COVID-19- related messages to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in multiple locations and different community languages.

In years ahead, I am certain that Australia will view these campaigns as the gold star standard for public health messaging.

This crisis has once again shown our resilience and adaptability, the effectiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run organisations and the ability of our communities to come together in times of crisis to achieve great things. We should be rightly proud.

The irony of returning to Country

But, for me, and for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is also a particular irony in returning to Country.

The prevailing policy position for several decades has been to systematically underinvest in, and to close down, homeland communities. The belief among policy makers was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are ‘better off’ in urban centres. Now we’re being told it’s easier to keep us safe on Country.

A group of Indigenous children post for the camera after hunting for traditional food.

June Oscar's grandchildren on the Country near Fitzroy Crossing where she is a Native Title holder.(Supplied)

Our COVID-19 return to Country has also highlighted those decades of systematic underinvestment in the critical infrastructure of Indigenous communities. We are returning to communities that have not been adequately supported for many years. We may be safer from the virus, but our human rights are still at risk.

In some instances, people have moved back to communities where water and electricity has been cut off. Additional people have put pressure on scarce resources in some communities, leading to even greater stress for already vulnerable communities where food security, inadequate housing, poor mental health, high levels of alcohol and drug consumption and domestic and family violence are already at crisis point.

Many communities have only limited health and social service supports. Where there should have been long-term investment in local skills, health and social infrastructure, fly-in-fly-out services have been provided instead.

The flaws of this system were brought into sharp relief here in the Kimberley when visiting health workers brought COVID-19 into the community (it has been quickly contained).

COVID-19's unexpected lessons

This cannot be allowed to continue. We cannot emerge from this crisis still living under these failed systems that do not take our needs into account. Returning to a norm that was never acceptable to begin with is not an option.

COVID-19 is providing us with many lessons and truths that we must respond to, but before it is over, we must put in place a new agreement with Indigenous communities.

Indigenous people have the right under international law to live in the location of their choice — but we need adequate health, social and cultural infrastructure that enables us to thrive wherever we choose to live. Australia cannot continue to deny that right.

Red cliffs in the outback against blue sky

June Oscar's Country near Fitzroy Crossing(Supplied)

We need a staged approach of relief, recovery and reform, and then construction. We have proven through this crisis that our communities and organisations are capable and able. But we cannot continue indefinitely to create solutions inside a system that has not been designed for our needs.

We need to involve our communities and organisations in co-designing new systems and infrastructure that work for us. We need an end to systems dreamed up by policy makers "for our own good".

A wake-up call. And an opportunity

For many, this crisis has been a wake-up call.

We must now use it as an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to emerge from this crisis with new systems for everything from health, to housing and the economy.

This is an opportunity for a rethink about how governments invest. It is an opportunity for new conversations and ways of thinking.

If we get this right, we can create systems that enable us to close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples once and for all, so we are never at risk like this again.

June Oscar is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign.

Published in ABC online
Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner