What the COVID “let it rip” strategy has meant for Indigenous and other immunocompromised communities
After a year and a half of lockdowns, border closures, mask-wearing and social distancing, and the rollout of the vaccine, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has moved on to what is essentially a “let it rip” pandemic approach.
It’s a boost from the government to “open up” and “get back to normal”. However, since this approach was adopted, it has led to the spread of omicron at increased rates across the country.
This shift to “learning to live with the virus” makes life more difficult and more dangerous for vulnerable groups such as First Nations, people with disabilities, seniors, people with chronic conditions and immunocompromised people. Refugees and migrants are also more at risk serious illness and death from COVID.
Experts warn: “As the virus moves into vulnerable populations, such as older Australians, people with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander […] we could see an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.”
This way of thinking was particularly prevalent in the discourse surrounding the release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics COVID-19 Mortality Report. As reported in The Guardiansome media have stated or implied that COVID does not kill enough “healthy” people for it to be considered harmful, thus placing a lower value on some lives.
For example Joe Hildebrand written in an editorial for news.com.au: “…not only did so-called “COVID deaths” account for only 1% of deaths during the pandemic, but 92% of that 1% were people with pre-existing health conditions ranging from pneumonia to heart disease.”
“Living with COVID” doesn’t include everyone
In Australia, some people with weakened immune systems cannot be vaccinated due to chronic disease. There are also some people whose bodies will not respond to COVID vaccines either because of medications for ongoing treatments or because of comorbidities that impact their immune system.
Even if people with chronic conditions get vaccinated, their weakened immune systems mean there is no certainty they would be protected from COVID.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are affected by the disease 2.3 times more than non-Aboriginal Australians.
General practitioner and epidemiologist Dr Jason Agostino of the Australian National University noted“There are nearly 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who are at higher risk of becoming very ill if they are not vaccinated and contract COVID-19.”
ADF staff have been called in to help fight the outbreak, which has infected more than 70 residents and staff.
— NITV (@NITV) February 26, 2022
How First Nations communities are still being left behind
Prior to the pandemic, Aboriginal people faced health disadvantages and inequitable access to health care. It has gotten worse since the pandemic. One of the significant issues has been access to affordable food during the pandemic, increased vulnerability of homeless Indigenous people during lockdowns, lack of ability to self-isolate at home, and lack of access to health care. community health.
The pandemic has also disrupted communities that could not see each other due to public health concerns. This has an impact on community approaches to health care, cultural practices and connection to country.
COVID-19 is disrupting the social fabric in the Kimberley as community transmission grows.https://t.co/i7JkEMfMM5
— ABC Indigenous (@ABCIndigenous) February 27, 2022
Some indigenous communities also have limited access to health services and need to be better informed by health workers in their own communities about testing and vaccination. This has been proven by stories like in Arnhem Land, Uncle Charlie Gunabarra, Chairman of the Mala’la Health Service, traveled to remote communities to share information about the COVID-19 vaccine. This led to a a significant increase in vaccinations.
What should happen
A study by the Australian National University, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Lowitja Institute reinforce that First Nations people “must remain a priority group” for Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this study, Dr Tanya Schramm from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said: “Improving access to social determinants such as housing and healthcare will reduce the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 in Indigenous peoples, and this must occur alongside chronic disease care and management and efforts to increase immunization coverage.
Efforts have been made to overcome access to health services during the pandemic through telehealth and online health care options. However, access to these services faces challenges such as limited telephone access, computer literacy and internet coverage. It also has an impact on refugee and migrant communities.
Despite Scott Morrision declaration “We are now at a stage in the pandemic where you cannot make everything free”, not everyone can afford to buy rapid antigen tests. Although there are recent initiatives in place to make them available to concession card holders and the WA population, these tests should be free for all.
Ableism is complex, harmful, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the damage to priority groups. In order to address this issue, the government needs to better include First Nations communities in its COVID-19 strategies going forward. This can be done by providing resources to health organizations controlled by Indigenous communities in regional and remote areas, as recommended by the Australian Department of Health.
Better government support and communication with First Nations people and their health centers can minimize misinformation and fear around the virus and the vaccine. It could also provide much better access to health care, vaccines and rapid antigen tests.
As Western Australia opens up, some remote Indigenous communities and aged care facilities have been placed under quarantine, we must find better ways to support vulnerable communities in the fight against COVID-19 in Australia .
The first Aboriginal death from COVID reminds us of the outsized risk that communities in NSW face
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