The Drum’s Ellen Fanning
Indigenous health leaders are urging the Federal Government to declare special isolation zones patrolled by the police or the army in a radical move to prevent COVID-19 devastating remote Indigenous communities.
- Remote communities are currently experiencing delays of a week or more on COVID-19 testing
- They want the whole of the Northern Territory and Central Australia to be a special control area
- There are fears a COVID-19 outbreak in these communities would cause “absolute devastation”
Following a telephone hook-up over the weekend, Aboriginal health organisations have warned the Prime Minister that if COVID-19 enters remote Indigenous communities, it will be particularly deadly.
“If this virus gets into Aboriginal communities, it will be absolute devastation, absolute devastation without a doubt,” said Pat Turner, the CEO of the National Community Controlled Health Organisations (NACCHO).
That organisation sent the list of recommendations to the Prime Minister on behalf of 140 Indigenous health services around Australia.
“My sector has acted promptly and we continue to work with the Commonwealth federal department, who themselves have been very good but we need the resources and we need the equipment,” Mr Turner said.
The health leaders say overcrowded housing means self-isolation is impossible, while distance from hospital and testing facilities will put a huge strain on existing clinical staff, which needs to be addressed “without delay”.
Lengthy testing delays
There are currently delays of a week or more for test results for those suspected of having coronavirus in remote communities and already-stretched clinical staff have to treat all patients with respiratory symptoms as suspected cases.
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The health leaders have also issued a plea for the urgent release of adequate supplies of personal protection equipment for medical staff in all remote health clinics.
They also want a 3-month program to allow influenza vaccines to be given in people’s homes without them coming into clinics.
Some remote communities have already imposed restrictions on travel including Queensland’s Northern Peninsula Area, where only essential or urgent travel will be permitted.
The Kimberley is remote but does not yet have travel restrictions. (Supplied: Tamara O’Reilly)
They want the whole of the Northern Territory as well as Central Australia and regions like the Kimberley and Cape York designated as COVID-19 Special Control Areas.
According to the recommendations, police or the Australian Defence Force, working with local Land Council rangers, would be deployed to monitor the movement of people in and out of these areas.
Those who want to enter would be sent to appropriate facilities for 14 days of self-isolation, mirroring the quarantine required for international travellers to Australia.
Potential for travel restrictions
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner has already said shutting down the Territory’s borders remains a possibility to stop the coronavirus pandemic from reaching the NT.
Mr Gunner says his current focus is on limiting travel to remote communities without impacting interstate freight supplies and says he is not ruling out more severe travel restrictions.
“There is significant complexity in how you would even manage this, or if you could even lawfully do it, so for me my focus right now, priority right now, is protecting our remote communities and we are doing that, and that may be sufficient, but I believe you do whatever it takes.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already warned Australians about the dangers of travelling to remote areas of the country.
“Just as it is important for people to not visit aged care facilities in large numbers, it is also important they’re not visiting remote Indigenous communities or remote parts of the country and there are other parts of the country that are similarly sensitive,” Mr Morrison said.
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The Prime Minister will have to decide whether to agree to a broader role for the ADF providing back-up for medical staff in remote health clinics, establishing community-based quarantine facilities within 24 hours of a confirmed community transmission of the virus in a remote community and supplying chronic medications for people in their homes so they are not forced to attend over-stretched health services.
The Indigenous health leaders also call for mobile fever clinics to test patients in their homes, remote retrieval teams made up of a nurse and a young Aboriginal community worker to evacuate high-risk people, isolation and quarantine facilities in remote and regional centres, as well as hostel facilities in major centres for the temporary relocation of high-risk people if the virus begins to sweep through their remote communities.
Patients can not be diverted to other local health care facilities in the same areas and there are no hospitals or respiratory testing centres, so, they warn, clinical staff will need to “do it all”.
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