Residents of Beagle Bay are looking forward to welcoming tourists back into their town before Christmas after passing the 90 per cent vaccination threshold.

The remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in WA’s Kimberley region, Beagle Bay has been closed to travellers since the beginning of the pandemic 18 months ago.

With vaccination rates hitting 90 per cent, Nyul Nyul woman Corinna Sebastian said Beagle Bay community are looking forward to reopening to tourists who want to see the community’s spectacular Scared Heart Church.

Beagle Bay’s Scared Heart Church. Photo Supplied Facebook.

Sebastian, the chairperson of the Beagle Bay Futures Indigenous Corporation, said it’s a huge relief to see so many people protected.

“I’m happy for my mob, I’m happy for my family, and I’m happy for my community to get this vaccination,” she said.

“We really need to get it done because we are not going to be locked down forever and we need to look after our people, non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous people, living within our community.”

Lockdown was difficult for the community but also saw many people connecting with Country again.

“There was frustration, and confusion, and getting a bit of hysteria, being locked up in one bubble,” Sebastian said.

“But with all of that, actually it made more of our people come back home. It made some of our mob come back home, get to go back on Country and do a bit of our normal leisure activities we do, a bit of fishing and hunting.”

Though the community hopes to be fully vaccinated by Christmas, welcoming visitors back won’t mean an end to vigilance.

“If we’re going to get open to the public, we still have social distancing to public. And, I mean, if, if we open to the public, like our families and friends coming to visit us, we need to get notified if they are fully vaccinated,” Sebastian said.

It was Beagle Bay’s old people who lead the way in the rollout, Sebastian said.

“Our Elders were the ones who actually led the way; they were just little keys to unlock our understanding that there was a lot of stuff [that wasn’t true being said] online and media and just verbally,” she said.

Vaccines were delivered to the Beagle Bay community by the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service (KAMS), which operates a clinic in the town.

KAMS’ medical director, Dr Lorraine Anderson, said having trusted Aboriginal medical professionals administering the vaccine made a huge difference to takeup.

“I think the big difference with Beagle Bay is that the clinic staff are community members,” she said.

“The model of care that we have with our Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Services is that it’s very much not just about the medicalisation of everything, it’s about talking to people about their spiritual concerns or their cultural concerns.

“We’re used to doing that across the board with all sorts of disease situations and so plugging COVID vaccine into that whole model has actually been reasonably easy, and I think even easier in Beagle Bay, because they’ve had plenty of time to really get all of their concerns and all of their questions answered in a very culturally appropriate way,” she said.

Dr Anderson hopes the Beagle Bay community will be close to 100 percent vaccinated within days.

Jason Agostino of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation said Beagle Bay’s success in rolling out the vaccine is reflected in other communities with strong local leadership.

“It’s not a huge outlier, to be honest, there are a number of communities that have gone similar ways,” Dr Agostino said.

“The main thing in these success stories is a local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader, perhaps who’s a health worker, who leads the vaccination effort in that community and who holds a lot of authority.”

“When that happens, the community listens. And those people can cut through all the noise that’s going on on social media.”

“From what I’ve heard from Beagle Bay, and from other areas that have had good successes in the central desert region it’s really about those leaders in the community.”

By Sarah Smit