♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.
As the COVID-19 virus became pandemic, in Australia, the strange phenomenon of toilet paper hoarding began. I have been bewildered watching people rushing to the shopping centres, going toe to toe, desperately fighting for paper to wipe their arse. I thought, what about food? The first thing I stocked up on was rice! As a Torres Strait Islander, with Phillipino and Dayak great grandfathers who married in the Torres Strait in the early 20th century pearling boom, there are few meals my family enjoys without rice.
The toilet paper, and a measure of our societal maturity, were the first Australian casualties in today’s pandemic. The madness in the shopping centres were an early indicator that the leaders of the nation would need to step up. But as with the bushfire crisis, they did not. The state of Australia’s politics – the lack of courageous and visionary leadership – should be a great concern for all of us in these times.
Leadership failure deadly
The lack of leadership from the Federal government will be unnecessarily fatal to the elderly and most vulnerable. From all indications, and perhaps as this article is published, we are almost certain to see many of their lives lost to the pandemic, but it didn’t need to be this way in Australia. Many of us have been watching the reports from China, the United States and Italy. We know that Australia has had an opportunity to prevent an outbreak. The government has had the chance to prepare.
But while the government was spending more time denying the impending dangers – putting the profitability of donors and a Hillsong Conference before the people – confusion has reigned and some of us have just done what we could. For example, wharfies, as members of the Maritime Union of Australia, have been fighting since early February to ensure that ships arriving in Australian ports, in under fourteen days, from countries affected by COVID-19 are screened by a qualified medical officer, rather than allowing the ship’s Master and crew to self-assess. We continue to be vigilant with no support from the employers. Yet even last week as the confirmed cases in Australia exploded, Scott Morrison was smugly brushing off the urgency of the situation. His handling of national emergencies is consistent – unfortunately. He has been absent when needed the most.
Lack of government devastating First Nations people
For First Nations people, the health crisis is not new. Starvation, impoverishment, poor sanitation and third world living conditions have existed since Captain Cook opened the flood-gates to colonisation two-hundred and fifty years ago. Though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders resisted and have fought back, in our remote communities there remains little in the way of medical facilities and support.
When COVID-19 hits remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the outcome will be devastating. There already exists an epidemic of chronic diseases – diabetes, heart, and lung disease – that will cause Indigenous people in our communities to be more likely to contract the virus, and almost certainly to die from it in far greater numbers.
When the virus hits a community, there are few ways to self-isolate, living in an over-crowded home where your very existence depends on those around you. The virus will spread quickly, and there will be nowhere to go. There are no morgues for the dead. There will be no help from the big cities, or towns that are already inundated with the sick and the dead.
Uluru Statement from the Heart
The Uluru Statement from the Heart contains the nationwide consensus that First Nations reached at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention in May 2017. The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the constitution (a representative body to with a guaranteed voice to parliament); and a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations (treaties), and truth-telling to the nation.
The Morrison government has been warned. Indigenous politicians, peak organisations and leaders have called on the powers that be to provide the support to the communities that will need it the most. But will they be heard?
This week, the parliament sat to implement legislation for the emergency situation. I remind readers of the campaign to see a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution (as the unprecedented 2017 Indigenous consensus called for, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart). It has yet to happen – and I reaffirm that we need all Australians to walk with us to achieve this visionary statement, because if we did have it, right now, I would be reassured that the parliament would hear us in this current pandemic. I am sure that for their inaction on COVID-19, we will need to hold them to account for all the lives that will be lost.
Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander, a wharfie and union official for the Maritime Union of Australia and a signatory of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Thomas has tirelessly advocated for the proposals in the Uluru Statement, and is the author of Finding the Heart of the Nation – the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth, published by Hardie Grant. His book tells his story, the story of the Uluru Statement and the remarkable people that he met on his campaigning journey. A children’s version of the book will be published in June 2020.
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