Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


COVID and remote First Nations communities: Why are vaccination levels so varied?

  • 22 November 2021
In late October I returned to Melbourne after spending some months in the Kimberley and Northern Territory, mainly in two remote areas with significant First Nations people: Balgo and the Kutjungka region in the Kimberley, and Wadeye and the Daly River region in the Northern Territory. I have known people within both regions for nearly 50 years.

As both an ordained priest and health researcher (my doctorate was within the School of Population Health at The University of Melbourne), I left both regions greatly concerned about the effects the Delta variant of COVID would cause when it arrived. I believed it would eventually arrive and, when it did, it would create enormous pain and inevitable deaths if certain actions were not taken.

We are now watching the entry of the Delta variant into the Northern Territory and with increasing concern about its possible spread across First Nations communities who vary greatly with their vaccination rates. This question was posed last Friday (19/11) on the ABC’s Coronacast: ‘Why is Indigenous vaccination so patchy?’

The conversation suggested two main reasons: the lack of State or Territory sponsored supply of vaccines and roll-out of vaccination programs, and the influence of US extreme Christian fundamentalists opposing vaccination. While those reasons hold some validity, I suggest there are other underlying issues and these will remain after the Delta variant of the coronavirus becomes history.

When I first went north in the 1970s people used to joke about the sort of ‘white people’ who came north into remote Aboriginal communities. They were often named as the three ‘Ms’: the Mad, Misfits and Missionaries. Sometimes there were also Mercernaries, those who exploited communities for personal or financial gain.

On this last trip, I heard of a new ‘M’: Mortgagers. People who were willing to work up north for good wages and able to save enough money to pay off their house down south. While the cost of living in remote communities is much higher than the south eg. some grocery items are 100 per cent more costly than in the large cities, there are fewer opportunities to spend money. There are no restaurants, hotels, cinemas, music, or large sporting events held in remote communities. Some staff are flown in and out on regular intervals. This means that staff — working in a community store, school or health clinic — can save a considerable amount of money over a short period of time,