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COVID-19 restrictions discriminatory

[by Dr Stephen Hagan]

Marion Scrymgour. Image: NLC

As the abrupt news in early March of the Northern Land Council (NLC) closing all remote communities to non-essential travel, in response to fears over the spread of COVID-19, I too was forced to shut down a significant community engagement project I was working on to make haste to the Tennant Creek airport to fly home.

 

Forget the inconvenience of disruption, loss of income and associated costs, I knew there were far more important things to worry about at that unambiguous point in time.

NLC CEO Marion Scrymgour said she made the vital call to protect Aboriginal people in her coverage area already stricken by chronic health conditions.

 

Throw in overcrowded accommodation and lack of resources on many levels in remote communities and you have a recipe for catastrophe of epic proportion if leaders like Marion did not impose such draconian laws that she knew would bring about a ‘new normal’, the like of which has not been envisioned by our mob before.

Fast track eight weeks and what was deemed a timely and appropriate course of action to list all remote Aboriginal communities ‘designated biosecurity areas’ as crucial cultural protection measures at that time is now being viewed in a totally different light, albeit with the luxury of hindsight and a more controlled environment.

Woorabinda’s Doug Graham, reported in ABC news, said it was unfair to watch other Queensland residents enjoy the easing of his state’s COVID-19 restrictions whilst residents of his central Queensland Aboriginal community felt discriminated against, acknowledging ‘it feels like we’re still living under the Aboriginal Act’.

Further north at a roadblock out of Yarrabah leading to Cairns, residents vented their anger at police and army personnel who stood between them and their taste of freedom from the extensive suffocating-imposed restrictions.

Traditional Owner Tiana Yeatman said her people wanted the same rights as every other Queenslander. Speaking to ABC News she said, “You can’t even buy underwear in this community, how degrading is that”.

Conversely, in the beautiful part of the nation I now call home, Darwin, the NLC has agreed with the NT government to ease travel restrictions to NT’s 76 remote Indigenous communities on 5 June. Surely it is not too much to ask of leaders of other jurisdictions, including Queensland, to follow their lead. Perhaps the leadership of the North Queensland Land Council (NQLC) ought to put in a call to Ms Scrymgour to gain her insights on processes undertaken to arrive at her organisation’s favourable resolution with government on the most contentious of contemporary health issues.

The success at controlling the spread of this incurable pandemic through self-isolation of our mob in their communities through strict restrictions has allayed fears of a potential repeat of Australia’s first pandemic in April 1789, 15 months after the landing of the First Fleet, that had an almost 90 per cent death rate of the local custodians, the Gadigal.

If leaders of remote communities believe – on guidance from health advisers – that the time is right to lift travel restrictions safely, then take down the roadblocks.

Under the leadership of NLC’s charismatic leader Marion Scrymgour and in consultation of community leadership I look forward to seeing country men and women travelling freely throughout the NT.

I am also eagerly anticipating a resumption of work back in the Barkly Shire to complete unfinished business under tighter parameters in the ‘new normal’.

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