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New measures to protect remote Indigenous communities amid virus fears

“We have too many living history books in our community for us to lose them through death.”

Mr Wyatt said states and territories, alongside local Indigenous leaders, would identify the relevant communities and enforce the restrictions.

Across the country, Aboriginal health organisations say they are well-prepared, but issues remain around resourcing and contingency plans if the virus spreads to remote communities.

“Aboriginal people are four times as exposed as other people, so we need to continue to be conscious about that,” said Dawn Casey, deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation

“Once [the virus] gets hold – and hopefully it doesn’t get hold – it will just spread like wildfire through communities and it will be devastating.”

Ms Casey said a national taskforce of Indigenous health experts, federal, state and territory governments had been working in cooperation to form a prevention strategy and that was “going reasonably well”.

She praised Aboriginal health groups for providing consistent, clear messaging to communities, including information in First Nations languages.

But Ms Casey said there was a shortage of personal protective equipment for remote health staff.

She also urged the federal government to revise its free entry offers to some national parks “where our people live” and flagged telecommunications issues due to low bandwidth and increased demand in remote areas.

Indigenous communities have high rates of chronic illness.

Indigenous communities have high rates of chronic illness. Credit:Sasha Woolley

In the event of a remote outbreak, contingency plans would likely be made on a case by case basis. Depending on the location, test results could take almost two weeks.

Due to overcrowded housing, communities may need to use public buildings as isolation areas, said Olga Havnen, CEO of the Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin.

She said in some cases, it may be more effective to evacuate those infected – a difficult task in small communities where people are in close contact.

“We’re trying to work out what’s the best way to respond to this so that it doesn’t create unnecessary fear or panic, and… to make sure that our people get access to the best quality information and care,” she said.

Despite best efforts, there is a heightened level of anxiety, said Lorraine Pacey, medical director at the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service.

“With the level of chronic disease and co-morbitity amongst our patients and particularly our older patients in our remote communities… their chances of surviving this, if they get it, are very low. And that’s distressing people the most,” she said.

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