A social media campaign run by US anti-vaccine activists and “faith organisations” is responsible for the slow uptake of vaccines in some of the Territory’s remote communities, the NT’s chief health officer has claimed.
Dr Hugh Heggie made the comments during a press conference with Chief Minister Michael Gunner Wednesday morning, as the government announced a sweeping policy to have nearly every employed Territorian vaccinated by next month in its efforts to get vaccination rates across the NT at 80 per cent.
Dr Heggie lauded the ACT – a jurisdiction comparable in population to the NT – for their high vaccination rate, then became emotional when discussing the low vaccination rates in some remote NT communities.
“Who’s going to take responsibility for the first death in the Territory? Who’s going to take the responsibility of the first Aboriginal death in the Territory?” he asked while holding back tears.
“I know some of the influences and they are from the US, anti-vax lobby and faith organizations – they may be the same.
“They’re using social media, particularly in Aboriginal communities, and they’ve done this before, when we had a measles outbreak, that there’s a whole explanation, that people won’t get it, that God will save us.
“I’ve said well maybe God sent us the immunization, the vaccine to help us.”
The comments come as the Northern Land Council called on the Gunner Government to protect Aboriginal communities by delaying the national plan to lift border restrictions.
“I urge Chief Minister Gunner not to throw Aboriginal Territorians under the National Plan bus,” NLC chair Samuel Bush-Blanasi said in a statement.
“Do not abandon us or expose our communities to a very real threat that we know will literally tear our communities apart.”
Some NT communities have less than 10 per cent of their residents vaccinated. Mr Bush-Blanasi said his group was working to get Indigenous Territorians vaccinated but said the government had not discussed its latest announcement with the group.
Gunner says government won’t give up trying to vaccinate remote Territorians, but no biosecurity zones
Mr Gunner rejected the calls however, and said COVID-19 would eventually get into the NT and expressed hesitancy around implementing biosecurity zones in remote communities that do not get vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, when you say we might bring in a biosecurity zone … people go ‘oh great’ I don’t have to get the vaccine’,” he said.
“I think what the Health Minister has been saying and what I’ve been trying to say is that, at some stage, despite our efforts, COVID will get in. Complacency terrifies me.”
Mr Gunner, Dr Heggie and Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker all singled out Yuendumu as a community that has been lagging far behind vaccination rates, but then said “this is not about stigmatizing and demonizing those communities”.
The Gunner Government’s latest plan to encourage remote Indigenous Territorians to get vaccinated involved Dr Heggie and Mr Chalker travelling to remote communities to spread the word.
“We’ve got videos in language,” Mr Gunner said. “We’ve got posters and flyers, we’re working with local councils and elders to get the right information to people, and the land councils are doing a mountain of work every day.”
Mr Chalker said there could be dire consequences if people do not vaccinate.
“The preferred posture for all Territorians and all those who choose to visit here is clearly to be double-vaccinated,” he said.
“The trade-off is my people literally walking around collecting bodies who passed away from COVID – and that’s a very real conversation that the chief health officer and I have had about what our worst-case scenario looks like.”
The government’s vaccine communication strategy in remote communities has been widely criticised, including by Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy who said the campaign has been ineffective and that “the communication has not been there”.
Mr Gunner said the government would not give up on getting remote Territorians vaccinated and said the government had looked at incentives such as $50 food gift cards or possibly banning unvaccinated remote Territorians from playing football but did not commit to any of those measures.