As COVID-19 rocks the country, Amnesty International Australia is calling for the Commonwealth to protect First Peoples’ human rights in the wake of the global pandemic.

Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Lead, Lidia Thorpe, is concerned about Indigenous Australians’ protection from COVID-19 and questioned the treatment of First Nations Peoples early in the Government response to the pandemic.

Commenting on the delayed changes to the Community Development Programme (CDP), Thorpe said it was “entirely inappropriate and unreasonable” to have people continue ‘work for the dole’ group activities, which often require close contact with others.

“What this says clearly is that we’re running a two-tiered system: one for blackfellas, and one for everyone else,” Thorpe said.

Although face-to-face services and group activities were axed, Thorpe told NIT these changes should have happened a long time ago.

“To expect our people to rock up to job network providers and to continue to work for the dole, wasn’t [appropriate].

“Why were our people put at risk when others weren’t expected to?

“Yes, we welcome the turnaround … but it’s already caused anxiety … in communities.”


No access to information

Although a steady stream of information is being conveyed daily across Australia, Thorpe said Indigenous communities are still struggling to access updated information due to no internet access.

“Whilst there are good announcements … I think [the Government is] forgetting our most vulnerable communities in the country—which are predominantly Aboriginal communities,” Thorpe said.

Without access to up to date information, Thorpe said First Peoples won’t know how to protect themselves.

“We think the Government should have a number of measures to address the needs of Aboriginal people and their communities as part of this crisis response.”

Thorpe said this lack of access to information will not only hurt communities but the Commonwealth too as it will contribute to communities’ disenfranchisement with Government if they don’t know people are trying to protect them.

“Our people are struggling to survive out there, even those who do have access to internet,” Thorpe said.

The Indigenous Rights Lead said all communities should have free access to internet and Wi-Fi hotspots where possible.

“There’s a lot of people with anxiety and people that have been isolated and aren’t sure what to do.”

Since First Peoples over age 50 have been instructed to self-isolate, Thorpe said community members should be wary of the high rate of suicide in communities.

“We can’t forget the issues before this virus are exacerbated by the virus.”

A spokesperson for Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group has developed a “specific Indigenous communications strategy to guide the regular engagement of Indigenous communities directly”.

“A suite of communications products, including translated material, is progressively being made available to intermediaries to take into community,” the spokesperson said.

“This has included packages for community radio, television, fact sheets, flyers and posters, and soon video content will be displayed through Aboriginal Health TV through screens in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) across Australia.”

The spokesperson did not comment on communities’ lack of internet access, however did suggest the National Coronavirus Helpline, reachable on 1800 020 080, as another avenue where people could access information and advice.


Overcrowded housing a transmission hotspot

First Australians forced to live in overcrowded living situations are also subject to increased infection risk, Thorpe said.

“The decline in public housing is putting people at extreme risk,” she said.

“We need to fill up whatever empty houses are out there and fix whatever houses need fixing so that we can get people housed as soon as possible.”

Not only will this combat the risk of infection, it will ease the burden of homelessness for some First Peoples, too.

“There are human rights breaches going on in this country right now in the midst of this crisis … there’s a large group of people that have been calling for [these changes] for decades and we shouldn’t be ignored in this process.”

The Department of Social Services, responsible for public housing, declined to comment and directed NIT to the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA).

The NIAA did not respond to NIT concerning public housing before time of publication.


Native Title options

Interestingly, Thorpe said Native Title Corporations should also be looking at how they can use their resources to help their communities.

“Our corporations have land and resources—I think it’s time those lands and resources be opened up to our people who need it most right now,” Thorpe said.

“It’d be great to see Native Title Corporations actually open up some of their lands and resources to take some of the pressure off some of our communities.”

NIT approached Kimberley Land Council for a response on this idea, however, they declined to comment.


Education for remote kids

As schools transition to remote learning, Indigenous children are set to be left behind.

“I’m hearing that there are children in town camps that don’t have access to internet,” Thorpe said.

“It’s imperative that all children should have access to internet, and even a device that allows them to connect,” Thorpe said.

A spokesperson for Minister Wyatt said while State and Territory education authorities are responsible for education delivery, the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) is also providing support.

“NIAA is supporting schools and communities to comply with health advice … while also working to ensure education continuity for students,” the spokesperson said.

“Where possible and safe to do so, services funded through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to support education outcomes will continue.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment said the Department is working with States, Territories and non-Government school providers to “minimise the impact of COVID-19 on students”.

By Hannah Cross