(Bloomberg) — The only road into Yarrabah shut at midnight on Thursday.
Like many remote communities across Australia, the town on the tropical far northeast coast is pulling up the drawbridge to stop coronavirus from entering. Only emergency personnel and health workers are allowed in, after their temperatures are checked. Rangers have stepped up sea patrols to stop access by boat.
With Aboriginal Australians among the most vulnerable due to underlying health conditions, the battle to stop the spread of virus could literally be life or death. Indigenous communities across the world, including the First Nations in Canada, are preparing for the fight.
“It’s a very difficult crisis to manage because we’re talking about a segment of society that generally doesn’t respond well to heavy-handed rules and regulations,” Yarrabah’s senior medical officer Jason King said.
Taking a brief break from assembling a new fever clinic that will ramp up coronavirus testing, King said the lockdown has the overwhelming support of the people, who are already highly vulnerable to chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. “We have 3,500 people here living in about 350 houses. That alone tells you what we need to deal with on a daily basis.”
Invoking the Australian government’s powers under the Biosecurity Act, Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week gave the states and territories powers to restrict entry into indigenous communities. The Northern Territory responded by saying the measures would apply to 76 remote communities, while Western Australia has announced similar restrictions.
In Canada, First Nations reserves are trying to adapt to strict hand washing routines even as many lack fresh drinking water.
The disease is now also spreading among the Pacific Islands — impoverished nations with already stretched medical resources. An island in Vanuatu, is in quarantine amid fears its people have been affected by cruise ship passengers, while Papua New Guinea’s 9 million people entered a 14-day national lockdown on Tuesday.
“This disease has spread so fast that everyone has been focusing on battening down the hatches and protecting their own communities,” said Jason Agostino, a doctor who since the start of the crisis has worked as an advocate for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation in Canberra.
“But going forward it will important to share lockdown information and strategies with the indigenous peoples of North America, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands,” he said. “We’re all dealing with really similar problems — high rates of chronic disease, increased levels of poverty and over-crowding, and some extremely isolated places where ensuring supplies remain available through secure logistical routes is going to be a big problem.”
It’s not just indigenous communities that are locking down. North Stradbroke, the world’s second-largest sand island that sits off the coast of Brisbane, is usually a thriving tourist haven. By Thursday, it had shut itself to non-resident arrivals, with a barge to provide essential services and supplies. Police were enforcing the new regime at its port, where the final few campers and tourists were departing for the mainland to leave the 2,000 permanent residents to themselves.
“It’s eerily quiet here,” Graeme Want, 68, said at the island’s lawn-bowls club where he is president. Normally it would be busy with lunch-time customers; on Thursday, it was deserted due to the federal government’s ban on non-essential services such as restaurants, sports complexes and cafes. “It’s already hit the business community here hard. There’s still some confusion about why it’s needed and nervousness about how long this will last.”
The cascading knock-on effects of coronavirus on everyday lives, along with measures to tackle them, are still being calculated throughout regional and remote Australia. There’s concern the iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service, which provides the sole access to medical care for many families running cattle stations that can be 10 hours’ drive from the nearest town, may need military back-up should some of its medical staff become infected.
Residents in remote Outback towns are fearful the thousands of workers who fly in from around Australia to work in their mines may be bringing the virus with them.
Still, in Yarrabah, where hunting for kangaroos and other native animals is still a part of everyday life, the enormous challenges the virus is creating could lead to some positive outcomes.
“There’s a lot of things that we’re doing in this huge upheaval that we’re hoping will stick beyond this pandemic — empowering people to look after themselves better so they can reduce the chances of getting sick, often through educational multimedia tools that they may never have used before,” King said. “This community has gotten by with very little for a long time. There’s a lot of resilience and resourcefulness that we can draw on and get through this.”
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