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How Indigenous Australians’ COVID-19 Response Averted DisasterWhen the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia, Indigenous Australians looked poised to be disproportionately affected. They statistically suffer from higher rates of known COVID-19 risk factors, such as obesity. In fact, 15.6% of Indigenous Australians have three or more chronic diseases. On top of physical risk factors, higher rates of poverty and underdeveloped health care, especially in rural areas, meant that if COVID-19 spread to many indigenous communities, the infrastructure was insufficient to combat it. Yet, COVID-19 rates for Indigenous peoples remain far below Australia’s national average. Learning from past mistakes, national health officials deferred to Indigenous leaders. The leaders made sure Indigenous Australians’ COVID-19 response was actually tailored to their own communities.

H1N1

In 2009, the H1N1 virus, known as the swine flu, hit Indigenous communities hard. Indigenous Australians, who include both Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, constitute 2.5% of Australia’s population. However, they made up 11% of swine flu cases. Additionally, they suffered from a death rate six times higher than the national average. The health gap between white and Indigenous people in Australia has long been a problem. The government launched the “Close the Gap campaign” in 2007.  This campaign aims to bring the average lifespan of Indigenous peoples up to par with that of white Australians (71.6 and 75.6 years for Indigenous men and women compared to 80.2 and 83.4 years). The H1N1 virus clearly illustrated how large the healthcare gap really is. As of 2020, the campaign is not on the schedule to bridge this gap by its target date of 2031.

Community Leadership

What has been lacking in the unsuccessful efforts to strengthen healthcare for indigenous Australians is sufficient input from Indigenous leaders. As the lead economist at the Australia Institute Richard Denniss put it, “It is far more effective from an economic point of view to give Indigenous Australians the power to take control of the policies that affect them.” In addition to training sufficient medical personnel in rural areas, programming was key to informing communities about the dangers of COVID-19 and the necessary precautions to stop it. Indigenous Australians’ COVID-19 response stood to be most effective when led by Indigenous Australians. The Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia shared videos on social media about the importance of health check-ups and social distancing. The videos use Indigenous people and Aboriginal Australian English. The Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service regularly broadcasts COVID-19 information using Aboriginal radio stations that reach remote and rural communities.

Results

While programming may seem trivial compared to actual testing and medical infrastructure, Indigenous Australians currently have COVID-19 at a rate six times lower than non-indigenous Australians. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group reported 146 cases in the indigenous community. Of these, only about 25% were in rural communities. Some remote aboriginal communities, such as Yakunytjatjara Lands in Queensland, closed their borders at the beginning of the pandemic. Due to these measures, Indigenous Australians’ COVID-19 response has largely been successful at keeping the virus at bay from remote communities where medical infrastructure is especially scarce.

Indigenous Australians have defied expectations largely through community tailored information and, in rural communities, exercising their sovereignty. As Indigenous populations worldwide struggle with COVID-19, Indigenous Australian’s COVID-19 response is a positive example to emulate.

Adam Jancsek
Photo: Flickr

Disparity Affecting Australia's Indigenous

Australia is the largest landmass in Oceania. This place was once home to 750,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who made up more than 500 indigenous groups. Today, Australia’s total population is just over 25 million. But, only approximately 3 percent of the population consists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Overall, Australia’s indigenous population faces widespread disparity in comparison to its non-indigenous counterpart. Below are ten facts about disparity affecting Australia’s indigenous population.

  1. Socioeconomic disadvantages Socioeconomic disadvantages contribute to developmental vulnerability among indigenous children. In 2015, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that 42 percent of Indigenous children in their first year of full-time schooling was considered developmentally vulnerable in one or more of the five key areas of early childhood development. These key areas are physical health, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge. In comparison, 21 percent of non-indigenous children were considered developmentally vulnerable.
  2. Poor test performance – Indigenous students have lower literacy and numeracy scores than their counterparts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve lower test scores throughout primary and secondary schooling on the National Assessment Program than their non-Indigenous peers. This certainly highlights educational disparity affecting Australia’s indigenous population. The farther away indigenous children live from cities and regional areas, the lower the test scores.
  3. Negative over-representation –There is over-representation of the indigenous population in the child-protection and justice systems. Indigenous children between the ages of 10 and 17 make up less than 6 percent of the population within that age range. However, 48 percent of those under youth justice supervision and 59 percent of those in youth detention centers are indigenous youths. Indicators of prior familial involvement with the criminal justice system, such as unemployment, can increase the chances of an indigenous child going into one of these two systems.
  4. Indigenous adults in the justice system – The adult justice system over-represents Indigenous individuals. For instance, 27 percent of the prison population in Australia consists of indigenous peoples, but only contribute to 3 percent of Australia’s total population. Socioeconomic factors and institutional discrimination are key factors that contribute to more 25 percent in the adult justice system being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent.
  5. High unemployment and low wages – Aboriginal and Torres Islander Strait populations face higher rates of unemployment and lower wages. In fact, just under 50 percent of Australia’s indigenous population is employed. However, over 70 percent of the non-indigenous population is employed. Lower income is associated with poor health, crime and violence, poor education and substance abuse. Consequently, these associations reflect a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities.
  6. Increased risk of poor health – Indigenous populations are more likely to have poor health than their non-indigenous counterpart. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are approximately two times more likely to have a high risk of complications such as long-term hearing problems, passing away before the age of 50, being born underweight, experiencing high levels of psychological distress or having a disability or long-term health condition.
  7. Poor living conditions – There are regional disparities affecting Australia’s indigenous population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands who live in remote areas are more likely to live in overcrowded communities or having substandard living accommodations. This is compared to those who live in major cities or regional areas.
  8. Beneficial cultural impacts – Although there are detrimental factors with living removed from cities and regional areas, indigenous communities living remotely experience beneficial cultural and communal impacts. They are more likely to speak an indigenous language, identify with a specific clan or tribe, be involved with cultural events and ceremonies. In addition, they are less likely to abuse substances (excluding alcohol and tobacco) and less likely to experience homelessness.
  9. Closing the education gap – There has actually been an improvement in recent years to close the gap in education. For example, indigenous individuals between the ages of 20 and 24 with a 12-year education (or equivalent) increased from 45 percent to 62 percent between the years of 2008 and 2015. Although the statistics for the non-indigenous population is higher at 86%, this is a great start at tackling educational disparity affecting Australia’s Indigenous population.
  10. NACCHO – The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization (NACCHO) is dedicated to representing Australia’s Indigenous population in regard to their needs and interests. The NACCHO’s main goals are to alleviate poverty, advance spirituality, provide constructive educational programs and deliver holistic and culturally appropriate health services to Aboriginal populations.

Though unfortunate, the history of Australia’s indigenous population includes foreign disease, massacres and violation of rights to their land. The present situation of educational, income and other types of disparity affecting Australia’s indigenous communities stems from the complex colonial history of the continent. Despite centuries of inequity, the Council of Australian Governments and other organizations have committed themselves to raise this marginalized group and decreasing disparity affecting Australia’s Indigenous population.

– Keeley Griego
Photo: Flickr

Advocating for People with Disabilities in AustraliaWhile Australia is considered akin to The United States and The U.K. in terms of development and opportunity, a large portion of its population is often disregarded and forgotten. Although native to the land, indigenous Australians are extremely disadvantaged and disempowered in terms of monetary power and the care they are afforded.

The high level of poverty among the indigenous populations is mirrored by inadequate health resources, particularly regarding physical and cognitive disabilities, both of which are disproportionately common in indigenous communities.

Focusing in on Disabilities in Indigenous Communities

Approximately 45 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people live with a disability or long-term health condition and more than 7 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people live with a profound or severe disability. Indigenous Australians (also called First Peoples) are over two times more likely to be living with a disability than their non-indigenous counterparts, and five times more likely to experience mental illness.

Such high levels of disabilities among the Aboriginal and Torres Islander communities can only be attributed to the high levels of poverty found within said communities. While urban indigenous poverty rates have been steadily declining over the past decade, dropping from 33.9 percent in 2006 to 24.4 in 2016, poverty rates both stagnated and rose in more remote regional areas between 1.2 and 7.6 percent depending on the area.

According to census data analyzed by Australian National University, while median disposable household income among indigenous families rose by $57 weekly in urban areas, it fell by $12 in remote rural areas over the same time period. As a result of such poverty, indigenous Australians face a myriad of issues that cyclically disadvantage their communities further.

In 2012-13, 24 percent of non-indigenous people were unemployed, but over half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not employed. only 19 percent of disabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people currently participate in Australia’s workforce.

 A Cycle of Poverty

Disability is innately connected to poverty, as it can result in significant barriers in education and skill development, job loss and reduced earning, additional monetary and time expenses and a variety of other factors that lead to economic hardship and disempowerment. Lack of economic resources limits access to primary health care services and preventive services, increasing the likelihood that a person works and lives in a physically and mentally detrimental environment.

A 2009 study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that half all working-age adults who experience one year of poverty are disabled, and almost two-thirds of those who experience long-term extreme poverty have either a physical or cognitive disability.

People with disabilities are also more likely to experience food insecurity and an inability to make or pay rent due to lack of employment opportunities. In 2014, the overall poverty rate was 15 percent; however, the poverty rate by disabled status ranged between 12 and 29 percent. Although disabled people only make up 8 percent of America’s population, they account for 17 percent of its impoverished population.

Similarly, those experiencing extreme poverty are more likely to become disabled due to limited access to adequate sanitation, food security, safe drinking water and primary health services. They are also more likely to pursue high-risk areas of work.

First Peoples Disability Network Australia

First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN) is governed and run by people who have experienced and continue to experience life with a disability, following the framework of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The organization was established in 2010, working within the social construct of disability (as opposed to diagnosis) to create community networks for disabled indigenous Australians and link them to affordable care while simultaneously working to dismantle stigmas surrounding both First Peoples and disabilities.

Gisela Rosa, a future intern at the Federal Public Defender for Western Washington, understands the gravitas of the change this organization is making, as her younger brother has Autism. “Accessible care is so incredibly important to people with disabilities and their families and caretakers can have the best quality of life possible,” she said. “It’s kind of a game of luck and can be near impossible for underprivileged people with disabilities to get the care they need.”

The work FPDN is doing sets an example for organizations to follow, paving the way in terms of how disabled people receive care, giving underprivileged citizens a chance to live the way they hope to.

– Katherine Anastas

Photo: Flickr