The coronavirus pandemic separated families across the CLC region, left remote community residents with bare store shelves and high food bills, landed new mums and people with mental health issues in quarantine and revived memories of being locked down in missions and jails. However, the response to what Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar called a “huge peacetime co-ordination effort” also brought to the fore a strong sense of unity and purpose among Aboriginal organisations, which has kept CLC constituents safe so far.
Independent observers have commented that the crisis shone a spotlight on the capacity and leadership of the sector. Flinders University professors, Claire Smith and Amanda Kearney, wrote in The Conversation:
“The Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council, in particular, provided outstanding co-ordinated leadership in the fight against COVID-19”.
They also noted that the pandemic response held an important lesson for Australia’s efforts to ‘close the gap’: “Trusted Aboriginal leadership is essential for successful outcomes for Aboriginal communities”.
The CLC has been on the front foot during the pandemic, both in its operations and its advocacy. At critical moments its strategic collaboration with other Aboriginal organisations set the agenda and achieved greater protection and safety for Aboriginal Territorians.
On 16 March it suspended all non-essential travel to remote communities and cancelled all exploration permits. Two days later the Commonwealth declared that COVID-19 posed a human biosecurity emergency and introduced the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) Declaration 2020 pursuant to section 475 of the Biosecurity Act 2015. The human biosecurity emergency period, initially in force for three months, was subsequently extended until 17 September 2020.
The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of Alice Springs held a joint media conference on 19 March, calling on the Northern Territory Government to declare the entire Northern Territory (NT) a special control area within closed borders. On the following day, as Darwin recorded the NT’s first two imported COVID-19 cases, the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT reiterated the demand in a letter to the NT Chief Minister, who promptly closed the NT borders.
A week later, on 26 March, the federal Minister for Health gave a direction to prevent or control the entry and spread of COVID-19 in designated areas in the NT, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. The CLC immediately restricted access to its offices. It limited its work to essential operations and directed staff to work from home where possible. The computer services team quickly rose to the challenge of implementing the technology and equipment that allowed their colleagues to do so (see COMPUTER SERVICES). The human resources team supported staff with access to counselling, information about the virus (including on the intranet), guidelines for remote teams, help with out-of-pocket medical costs, and special leave.
The Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements for Remote Communities) Determination 2020 effectively restricted access to all Aboriginal land and communities in designated biosecurity areas. The determination was amended three times and allowed access only to persons in defined circumstances, for example those who had undertaken 14 days of self-isolation.
For Aboriginal people living in the biosecurity areas in the CLC region, it meant that if they visited Alice Springs or Tennant Creek to buy affordable food, groceries and other essentials, they would have to self-isolate in those towns for two weeks before they could return home. It effectively shut remote community residents out of the towns, while leaving other bush residents free to move around.
Permission to enter the biosecurity areas from a “relevant decision-maker” was another way of accessing Aboriginal land under the determination. The only direct requirement provided to the CLC’s decision makers – the CEO, the General Manager Legal and the Executive Manager Policy and Governance – was to have “regard to guidance from a human biosecurity officer”. The decision makers sought and received such guidance from senior NT health officers, generally by telephone. Between 26 March and 5 June, they received more than 3,500 enquiries or requests for permission letters from persons wanting access to the designated areas in the CLC region. They provided 1,578 permission letters.
The CLC also helped to process the NT Government’s single-point-approved remote essential worker cards to essential workers, and issued 2,231 permits. It set up bespoke procedures for permissions and permits, and staff from all units worked long hours to implement them. A total of 34 staff worked on the permits and a total of 28 (up to 11 per day) volunteered to implement the permissions process.
The majority of permission decisions related to residents of outstations within 50 kilometres of Alice Springs or Tennant Creek. Unlike larger communities, which are serviced by their own stores and medical clinics, those homelands use the towns for all their services. The land councils successfully advocated with governments to exclude them from the biosecurity areas. On 23 April, the designated areas were amended to remove outstations near Alice Springs.
Many residents inside the biosecurity areas, however, longed to escape the empty shelves and high prices in remote community stores. They had been promised they would have everything they needed in their communities to stay safe and well during the lockdown, however the CLC received numerous reports of unavailable and unaffordable essentials. It warned governments that residents would ignore the biosecurity restrictions and come to town in search of affordable food and warm clothes and blankets.
On 12 April the CLC and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress held a media conference on behalf of 13 NT Aboriginal organisations, calling for affordable food and other essentials to be made available during the lockdown, as well as for lasting changes to the longstanding food security issues out bush that would strengthen the viability of community stores and the regional economies that depend on them. On 28 May the Parliament’s Indigenous Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into food prices and food security in remote communities. The CLC is preparing a submission and has advocated for hearings to be held in its region.
After the designated areas in the NT were excluded from the biosecurity determination the entry restrictions were no longer relevant. From 5 June the CLC stopped issuing permission letters but continued to issue permits at a higher rate than pre-COVID (see table OUTPUT 1.1. PERMITS). Three fulltime staff dealt with outstanding applications and approximately 20 phone enquiries per day.
Return-to-work planning for CLC staff and a staged return to normal operations had already commenced in May and were based on NT and Australian government guidance. Remote work recommenced in early June. This entailed implementation of safe work practices and risk assessments. Staff continued to be supported in working from home where practicable and effective.
After the lockdown ended, the NT Government’s external border and other restrictions continued to apply. When the government announced its plan to reopen the borders on 17 July, the CLC joined Aboriginal medical and other organisations in urging extreme caution. The CLC executive committee and Northern Land Council chair, Samuel Bush-Blanasi, called on the government on 25 June to keep the borders with all other jurisdictions closed until community transmission of COVID-19 had been stopped outside the Territory. The CLC executive committee also passed a resolution asking the government to reinstate mandatory supervised quarantine for people from COVID-19 hotspots anywhere in Australia and to implement Congress’ ‘contain and test’ strategy in all remote communities to manage expected virus outbreaks.
The CLC’s advocacy campaign was backed by practical relief measures aimed at keeping constituents in the biosecurity areas as healthy, warm, safe and informed as possible. Working with local service providers, the CLC used almost a quarter of Minister Ken Wyatt’s $4 million grant from the ABA to distribute winter clothes, bedding, blankets, sleeping bags and mattresses. These items were distributed under agreement with providers directly to outstation and community residents and through their aged care services. CLC staff distributed directly to areas where service providers lacked capacity or did not respond in a timely fashion.
More than 50 outstations received assistance with urgent electrical and bathroom repairs, new generators and water tanks, plumbing and septic systems so they could cope with additional residents sheltering there. Public Wi-Fi hotspots were installed in Engawala, Wunara, Laramba and other communities. The grant enabled the Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation in Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) to deliver second-hand furniture and healthy takeaway food, and Catholic Care to offer tyre changing at local men’s sheds to reduce the need for Ltyentye Apurte, Titjikala and Aputula residents to travel to Alice Springs for this service.
The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council used a share of the funds to pay for weaving workshops to help tjanpi artists in Mutitjulu, Imanpa and Kaltukatjara (Docker River) maintain an income and good spirits, and for mental health workshops to help residents cope with the impacts of the pandemic and build awareness of the virus. The Central Australian Youth Link-up Service and CASSE Australia delivered recreational and cultural programs to 25 remote communities. These workshops kept young people busy during the lockdown. The Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi , Ampilatwatja Health Centre and Thangkenharenge Aboriginal corporations distributed emergency fuel, power and food vouchers.
The balance of the ABA funds was used for cleaning products that were in short supply in community stores and for COVID-19 messaging in six local languages through Pintupi Anmatyerr Warlpiri Media, Indigenous Community Television and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. Short video messages by CLC executive members and staff in local languages and English were among the most effective and widely shared social media posts. The CLC approved 36 funding agreements to manage the ABA grant, with a further 10 under negotiation on 30 June.
It also helped to distribute seven pallets of food donated by Coles. The CLC’s Tennant Creek office distributed 66 of these food packs, 48 packs of hygiene items and 128 boxes of water to nine surrounding communities and outstations. The MacDonnell Regional Council youth teams delivered 30 food packs each to households in the Mount Liebig and Utju communities where the immediate need was greatest, while the Central Desert Regional Council distributed food packs in Ti Tree, Atitjere, Engawala, Willowra, Laramba, Yuelamu, Yuendumu and Nyirrpi.
The CLC’s executive committee received regular updates from Congress and the NT’s health department and kept constituents informed through personal video messages delivered via social and Aboriginal media. The CLC posted and shared a steady stream of relevant COVID-19-related information on its Facebook page, much of it produced by Aboriginal people and organisations in the CLC region and beyond.
The discussions at executive committee meetings also informed the production in June of a special COVID-19 issue of Land Rights News, as well as a series of posters distributed to remote communities and town camps (see CLC ONLINE). Some of this material – for example a newspaper story and social media post about the ‘contain and test’ strategy endorsed by the land councils and the NT Public Health Committee – was produced jointly with Congress.
Dr Oscar has praised the production and distribution of COVID-19-related messages for Aboriginal communities as an achievement of which “we should be rightly proud”.
“In years ahead, I am certain that Australia will view these campaigns as the gold star standard for public health messaging,” she wrote in The Conversation.