Doing it themselves

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  • Published Date: 10 June 2020

By Péta Phelan, University of Melbourne

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

Indigenous leadership and expertise has been key in helping Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities avoid the COVID-19 devastation seen in the Indigenous Americas.

The COVID-19 toll around the globe has been uneven but devastating – a total of more than 360,000 people dead and still counting.

Inside this broad number is the particular devastation the virus has wrought among the world’s Indigenous communities, particularly in the Americas, both north and south.

This is despite many governments early in the pandemic adopting specific policies aimed preventing and managing transmissions among their Indigenous populations.


Yet in Australia, of the more than 7,000 notified COVID-19 cases, only 59 have been among Indigenous Australians. This is just 0.8 per cent compared with the Indigenous proportion of Australia’s population amounting to 3.3 per cent.

And the majority of these reported cases are in major cities. No cases have been notified from remote or very remote Indigenous communities.

Not only have Indigenous Australians avoided the terrible toll experienced by many other Indigenous communities, but it also seems that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders returning to country in regional or rural areas, or living in homelands ­– areas where Indigenous people have more control over their own communities – are actually safer than those in urban centres.

Compare this with North America

The Navajo nation (population 173,667), which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has just surpassed New York and New Jersey as having the highest per capita infection rate in the US.

In Arizona, the death rate for Indigenous people is 42.8 per 100,000 – almost six times higher than for white people.

These are horrific statistics, but at least the Native American health data in these states is visible.

Analysis done by The Guardian newspaper has found that about 80 per cent of state health departments in the US have released some racial demographic data, but of those states almost half didn’t explicitly include Native Americans in their breakdowns, instead categorising them under the label “other”.

Although Canada has dealt well with the COVID-19 crisis overall, new analysis shows that urban Indigenous populations are at much greater risk, and as in the US, the data that’s being collected and reported is inconsistent with the realities on the ground.

In South America, Brazil has reported 412,000 infections and 25,598 deaths to date, with the Indigenous population death rate sitting at 12.6 per cent compared to just 6.5 per cent for the rest of the nation.

The threat to Indigenous populations in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru is compounded by ongoing mining operations across the Amazon.

Although quarantines are in place, the economic priorities and imperatives of those countries has prevented these industries from temporarily shutting down, particularly in Ecuador and Colombia.

In Chile and Paraguay, forestry and agribusiness has continued operating across Indigenous territories, with transit through these areas continuing despite the health risks, community-led control points and roadblocks.

Across Latin America, the UN’s Refugee agency – the UNHCR – has stated that large numbers of displaced Indigenous communities are at high risk of exposure and infection.

The success of controlling COVID-19 in the Australian Indigenous population partly reflects state and federal government policies, and laws requiring social distancing, social isolation, travel restrictions and bans.

But the more significant factor is the rapid and expert Indigenous developed, led and deployed response.

Taking lessons from the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic, Indigenous Australians have actively engaged in pandemic preparedness, response and management. For example, the government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 is co-led by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

As Aurora Milroy from the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute points out, Indigenous communities themselves have taken independent action like imposing lockdowns ahead of government advice.


Using Indigenous informed and led knowledges and approaches, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public health practitioners and researchers have been fundamental in identifying the important issues for Indigenous communities.

They have set priorities, suggested solutions and deployed public health strategies and healthcare in a culturally centred and culturally meaningful way.

All of this once again highlights that self-determined communities are successful and thriving communities.

Indigenous leadership throughout this pandemic has occurred at every level of the community.

We are already aware that Indigenous medical, allied health and science professionals have been working furiously at the front lines or behind the scenes utilising their incredible knowledge and skills, to ensure mob are kept informed, healthy and empowered.

This has occurred across all aspects of the media and within health organisations. Indigenous athletes and entertainers have used their platforms to spread crucial public health messages, or lift spirits and bring joy during a time where isolation can have negative mental health impacts.

Indigenous Australia has been spared the impact seen elsewhere, because behind every major decision, strategy, approach and public health deployment we have seen culturally-centred leadership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The lessons extracted from COVID-19 will no doubt be numerous and cover a range of knowledge spheres and disciplines.

But the one lesson that I hope non-Indigenous Australia finally learns is that Indigenous leadership – when left to genuinely flourish without the ever-present interference and paternalism – is phenomenally powerful, deeply impactful and highly successful, highlighting the ways of knowing, doing and being that exist in Indigenous Australia.

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.