Only a matter of time before COVID-19 gets into a fragile community: Rural Doctors Association

by | Aug 13, 2020 | COVID-19 | 0 comments

By Roxanne Fitzgerald

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia is calling on the NT Government to reimpose strict visitor bans to remote Indigenous communities, saying without visitor restrictions in place, it is only a matter of time before coronavirus gets into one or more of these fragile communities.

They follow other peak medical bodies stating they did not want the NT Government to remove blanket mandatory 14 day quarantine when it did on July 17, with particular fears for the lives of Indigenous people.

There were extraordinary restrictions put in place to protect the Northern Territory’s remote Indigenous communities – that covered large parts of the NT – due to coronavirus which were lifted in June but there continues to be outbreaks of the virus in parts of Australia.   

Non-residents must still follow the requirements of land councils and local communities to enter Indigenous communities, but the recent plane-load of inter-state visitors wanting to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park have communities on edge 

Rural Doctors Association of Australia president Dr John Hall

Rural Doctors Association of Australia president Dr John Hall.

“Given the evidence of community spread in the eastern states, and some people providing false declarations at state borders – or crossing some state borders illegally – the NT Government should move quickly to again restrict access to its remote Aboriginal communities” RDAA President, Dr John Hall, said. 

“Most tourists will do the right thing and quarantine once in the NT if they have come from a hotspot area. 

“But there are others who – either unwittingly or purposely – will not declare where they have travelled from, will skip quarantine, and may then visit a remote Aboriginal community.”  

The NT Government did not respond to questions from the NT Independent however Chief Minister Michael Gunner has previously said his biggest fear was COVID-19 being discovered in a remote community.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the risk of a second wave coming to the Territory because we all got complacent and relaxed the borders too quickly,” he said on May 22. “I worry about it ripping through a remote community and killing people. That’s what worries me the most.”

On Tuesday, Mr Gunner announced the Northern Territory’s border control measures may remain in place until 2022, and advised Territorians to not travel. 

“We’ll have our hard border controls in place for at least the next 18 months and we’re resourcing until we can [lift] that,” Mr Gunner told ABC News Breakfast. 

 “If you can, cancel your Christmas holiday plans and stay here in the Northern Territory.” 

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The story of the removal of restrictions

In March, the Government restricted travel into remote communities under the Biosecurity Act 2015.  

The restrictions were then lifted on June 5. In a joint statement federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and NT Senator Sam McMahon said it was done the full support of Northern Territory land councils, the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance and the Northern Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency. 

However the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance later said they opposed the removal of blanket mandatory quarantine, until community transmission had been eliminated across the country.

“Because we are still seeing major breakouts in places like Victoria and New South Wales, we had hoped the border controls would remain in place until there was no more coronavirus in Australia or there was a vaccine,” chief executive officer John Paterson told ABC on June 19.

At the time Australian Medical Association NT president Dr Robert Parker also said it was “sheer idiocy” to remove the mandatory quarantine for visitors from non hotspot declared areas until COVID-19 was eradicated, although he understood the position of businesses who wanted the increased trade.

“I’m aware of how dangerous this bug is and we don’t want it to kill our remote indigenous population,” he said.

Restrictions on entry to remote Indigenous communities in WA remain in place

Now, coinciding with concerns from the residents of Mutitjulu – an Indigenous community close to Uluru – the RDAA says lifting of restrictions leaves too much scope for coronavirus to impact the communities. 

“By the time authorities discover that someone has got across the border by making a false declaration, they could have already spread the virus…and it will be too late,” Dr Hall said.  

“The NT Government cannot take this chance. 

“It must move urgently to reinstate access restrictions to its remote Aboriginal communities, to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens.” 

Dr Hall pointed to Western Australia, where some areas of had reopened internally to travellers, while it largely remains locked down from the rest of Australia.  

However, restrictions on entry to remote Indigenous communities in WA remain firmly in place, with breaches resulting in a fine of up to $50,000.  

“With large tracts of remote areas having their resident Aboriginal communities rely on centres like Katherine and Alice Springs for their healthcare, these towns have very little reserve for a surge in cases,” Dr Hall said.  

“COVID transmission in these towns would almost certainly translate to a pandemic for more remote communities, as Aboriginal communities rely on these larger towns as service centres. 

“Without visitor restrictions in place, it is only a matter of time before coronavirus gets into one or more of these fragile communities, and once it does the result could be devastating. 

“Border protections only work while everyone follows the rules and acts honestly.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

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