Indigenous health in Australia
As of 2012, life expectancy for Indigenous Australians was 10 years lower than that projected for non-Indigenous Australians. Between 2008 and 2012, two-thirds of Indigenous deaths occurred before age 65 whereas less than a quarter of non-Indigenous deaths occurred before age 65 during the same time period. In an effort to improve conditions surrounding Indigenous health in Australia, the Australian government launched Closing the Gap in 2008. The goal of Closing the Gap is to improve the lives of indigenous peoples through better healthcare, education and employment opportunities.

Closing the Gap

In 2008, Closing the Gap set six targets for success for pursuing Indigenous health in Australia: 1) close the gap in life expectancy within one generation (by 2031) 2) cut the mortality rate in half for Indigenous children under 5 3) ensured within five years that all Indigenous children had access to early childhood education 4) cut by 50 percent the gap in reading, writing, and numeracy achievements within a decade 5) narrow the gap in dropout rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and 6) reduced the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations by 50 percent in 10 years.

Examination of health gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians requires a holistic approach. To understand health, socioeconomic factors such as homeownership and education, behavioral drivers like rates of smoking and diet, along with environmental triggers like overcrowding and history of institutionalized discrimination all contribute to the relatively poor health of Indigenous Australians.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ischemic heart disease was the leading cause of death, accounting for 11.5 percent of total deaths, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2017.  Data show that Indigenous people in Australia die from cardiovascular disease at 1.5 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. As of 2017, Diabetes mellitus was the second leading cause of death among Indigenous populations in Australia; in fact, Indigenous Australians were four times more likely to have type 2 diabetes as non-Indigenous Australians.

Major Factors of Indigenous Health in Australia

Indigenous Australians struggle significantly more with poverty than non-Indigenous Australians. Less than 50 percent of Indigenous Australians are employed as compared to 75 percent of non-Indigenous Australians. Furthermore, the median equivalized gross weekly household income is $550 for Indigenous and $850 for non-Indigenous peoples. Factors like income affect the quality of food and housing which has direct ramifications on the health of those involved.

Diseases eliminated in the non-Indigenous population such as trachoma, a bacterial eye infection, and rheumatic heart disease persists with “high occurrence” in Indigenous populations. Nearly one-third of Indigenous Australians reported struggling with a chronic respiratory condition in 2012-2013. Compared to non-Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are hospitalized for respiratory complaints at 2.4 times the rate.

Upon arrival in Australia in the late 1700s, European colonization introduced diseases like smallpox to the Indigenous population. Additionally, the assumption of European superiority over Indigenous Australian has impacted Indigenous health in Australia for hundreds of years. Indigenous peoples in Australia did not get the right to vote until 1962 and were not counted in the national census until 1967. Up to 1992, when the High Court of Australia denied the correctness of the term terra nullius (land belonging to no-one), Australia effectively had denied the presence of an Indigenous population pre-European arrival.

Like the USA, Australia pursued aggressive assimilation policies such as the Australian Aborigines Act of 1905 which established the position of Chief Protector to be the legal guardian of each and “‘every aboriginal and half-caste child’ to the age of 16”. This well-established history of separating families has had deleterious effects on Indigenous mental and physical health across generations.

In the 1970s, Indigenous people began to fight back as they established their own councils of leadership, health clinics, and advocacy bodies such as the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization (NACCHO) in 1975.

The Good News

The 2019 Closing the Gap report issued by the Australian government celebrates the emerging partnerships between states and territories with Indigenous Australians and the Australian government but acknowledges that many of the target goals are not on track. However, steps are being taken. The implementation of the National Indigenous Australians Agency on July 1, 2019, suggests the Australian government is beginning to get serious about improving Indigenous health in Australia.

As Closing the Gap moves into its next phase, it promises to provide increased accountability on both the state and national levels for including Indigenous people in the process and implementation of initiatives. Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues, “The Australian Government is committed to working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a partnership which is critical to progress towards Closing the Gap.”

– Sarah Boyer
Photo: Flickr