The West Australian Department of Health predicted this week would see the worst infection rates of COVID-19 in Perth, with a daily caseload of roughly 10,000 infections.
A unique combination of isolation, government policy and civil compliance means the worst has not yet been realised, but it is inevitable that on the west coast the worst is yet to come.
For many in the west, particularly in Perth, we’re preparing. Masks, COVID tests, electrolytes and Panadol are filling our pantries in anticipation of what the Premier rightly describes as “rocky times ahead”.
But the story is different for the regional and remote Aboriginal communities in WA and I fear without immediate action, we’re putting the longevity of our people at serious risk.
Western Australia is home to about 200 Aboriginal communities. Some are town-based but some very, very remote. Most, if not all, also experience overcrowded housing at some point.
And this is where things start to get serious.
Over east, we’ve seen COVID-19 outbreaks in Indigenous communities spread far quicker than in non-Indigenous communities. In the Hunter region in NSW, the number of COVID cases in the Indigenous population there went from one to 20 per cent in a single week.
In WA, with chronic overcrowded housing, lower than average vaccination rates and the tyranny of distance from medical services, the impact on our Aboriginal community could be profoundly devastating.
These very real problems are further exacerbated by a lack of willingness from the State Government to release data about where and when cases are being detected.
This means the vacuum of information is being filled in places like Roebourne by fear and misinformation about those who are diagnosed as COVID positive.
The Department of Health may argue releasing the data would cause unnecessary stigmatisation for certain communities, but if that is the case then why is data released on infections in aged care homes.
It would be easy for us to say the responsibility should fall on the government alone.
But the reality is much more complex than that, and the question is much bigger than medical response and preparation to a virus that we’ve known about for years now.
The bigger question all of us must ask is exactly how much we value our Indigenous culture and communities that we know will be staring down the barrel of COVID in a manner of weeks, or months.
“The vacuum of information is being filled in places like Roebourne by fear and misinformation about those who are diagnosed as COVID positive”
When the risk exposure to our cities and most populous regions was a real prospect, it was an effort of national attention.
Governments and society made an informed decision we needed to protect everyone to mitigate the risk to the most vulnerable.
In any other environment with vulnerable people, think for example aged care, if there was so little preparedness and so little attention in advance of the spread of this virus there would be uproar.
We are not seeing that with respect to our remote and regional Indigenous communities.
Even the basic measures like transparent data, temporary isolation accommodation, vaccination supply and PPE are not being provided.
Instead with a very real sense that what is out of sight, remains out of mind, it seems our nation is unwilling or unable to muster the courage and conviction to protect our First Nation’s people, particularly our Elders.
We have precious little time to get this right, and a failure to act will be like repeating the mistakes of the past when colonial settlers first arrived.
Sadly though, the result may be the same with a risk of history repeating and entire generations of our remote and regional Aboriginal communities being gutted or wiped out entirely.
- Zak Kirkup is of Yamatji heritage and the former leader of the Liberal Party in Western Australia