Indigenous populations hit hard by Covid-19 as Northern Territory locks down

As the pandemic shows no sign it’s going anywhere, there has been one group of people hit harder by Covid-19 than anyone else.

It is the one group of Australians leaders were desperate to protect.

But now, as the Northern Territory Government braces for “many more cases” after announcing nine new Covid-19 infections in the small Binjari community in Katherine, authorities are scrambling to protect the vulnerable Indigenous population from the devastating Delta strain.

The new cases announced last night take the total number linked to this outbreak to 31.

They were spread across multiple households and Chief Minister Michael Gunner warned more cases may emerge.

“What’s … concerning is the evidence of substantial mingling between households in Binjari as well as mingling back and forth between Binjari and the nearby community of Rockhole,” Mr Gunner said on Sunday.

“These communities have very strong personal and family connections. It probably helps to think of them more as one big household, rather than a lot of different households.

“For these reasons, we do expect numbers in Binjari and probably Rockhole to increase – and they may increase by a lot. We have to be prepared for that.”

Up until now, the Northern Territory has been largely spared from Covid cases with state border rules helping keep the virus at bay.

This outbreak was first announced on November 16 when Mr Gunner shared the news that the virus had reached a remote Aboriginal community for the first time.

“This is undoubtedly the most serious update I’ve had to give you since the start of the pandemic because it involves a case in a remote community,” Mr Gunner said at the time.

In response, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced last Wednesday that the Australian Government was effectively shutting down parts of the Northern Territory in a bid to contain the crisis.

“The measures are being implemented based on the best public health advice and will be in place only as long as necessary to keep the community safe,” Mr Hunt said.

Australia is not alone in having concerns over Covid reaching its Indigenous population.

Around the world, Indigenous groups have been hit hard during the pandemic. And these global examples give some strong lessons to Australia as we now face the same battle on our own soil.

United States

When Covid hit the Blackfoot Native American tribe in Montana in October last year, it infected 10 per cent of the population of 10,000, leaving 48 people dead.

A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that between March and October last year, more than twice as many Native Americans in Montana contracted the virus than non-Indigenous people.

In fact, it found that in the first half of 2020, Indigenous populations in the US were 3.5 times more likely to contract Covid-19 than the white population and their mortality rate was almost double.

Historically, pandemics and epidemics hit the Native American populations hard. In 2009, the H1N1 influenza killed four times as many people in this population than the general population.

The reasons for these figures include the fact many Native American communities have higher rates of chronic illness, including heart disease and diabetes; smoking rates are high; many live in crowded multi-generational housing, and many have the kind of jobs where working from home is not an option.

Facilities are also lacking. In the Navajo Nation, there are just 13 grocery stores and 12 medical facilities across more 70,000sq km. One in three residents don’t have access to electricity and one in three have no running water.

University of New Mexico Health Sciences Centre associate professor Melissa Begay told The Lancet that mistakes were made early on in the pandemic.

She said in the Navajo Nation, where she grew up, people often have to drive for hours to get to a healthcare facility.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there were definitely delays in people getting diagnosed because of the difficulties in getting to hospital,” she said. “It is also very possible that people died because of the lack of medical services.”

Vaccinations are now helping turn the tide. In fact, vaccination numbers among US Indigenous groups is higher than any other racial demographic. It is thought the reason for this is both a cultural willingness to be vaccinated, and the US government’s decision to allow communities to control vaccine distribution themselves.


Covid hit Brazil hard as President Jair Bolsonaro refused to put into place public health measures against what he initially described as a “little flu”.

The South American nation has reported more than 22 million cases through the pandemic, with 612,000 deaths.

But the pandemic has caused far-reaching devastation to the Indigenous population, with the deaths of tribal elders effectively wiping out thousands of years of cultural knowledge and history to be passed down to future generations.

Oral tradition, through myths and songs, is one of the main aspects of knowledge sharing within Brazil’s Indigenous people.

Wesley dos Santos, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, specialises in the Kagwahiva tongue spoken by the Juma and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people.

He said: “When a community begins to lose its verbal culture, it becomes impossible to document many things.”

While case numbers in Brazil have been disputed throughout the pandemic – with much underreporting suspected – there have been almost 55,000 confirmed Covid cases among Brazil’s Indigenous population and 1087 deaths, according to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) reported that the mortality rate among Indigenous people was 16 per cent higher than among non-Indigenous Brazilians. In its report, COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples, it wrote: “We have lost our elders who kept and shared the memories of our ancestry, the guardians of our knowledge, of our songs, our prayers and our spirituality.”


Unlike Brazil, its neighbour Peru responded quickly to the pandemic, announcing lockdowns and other public health measures.

And yet, the nation of 33 million people now holds the unenviable record as the country with the highest Covid death rate.

When the Peruvian government first announced lockdown, case numbers rose. There were various reasons for this.

It has a large informal workforce – where people work cash in hand or in lieu of goods – so many couldn’t stay home for financial reasons.

Only 38 per cent of Peruvians have a bank account. So any government payments had to be given out as cash which was logistically impossible.

And more than 40 per cent of people don’t have a fridge. So residents had to continue going to shops to buy their food as they had no way to stock up.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, the health system could no longer cope.

And it didn’t take long to infiltrate Amazonian Indigenous communities which lack basic health care, and have little access to clean water and sanitation.

Amazon Basin

By December 2020, Covid numbers among Indigenous people in the Amazon regions of nine countries which share the basin had reached 73,000 cases.

And, according to the Catholic Church and the Co-ordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), more than 2100 had died. Due to underreporting, the real number is likely higher.

Again, the loss is greater than the number of lives lost.

The virus has taken a disproportionate toll on community elders. The cultural impact will affect many generations to come.

‘Grave health threat’ says UN

In a statement, the United Nations said the coronavirus pandemic “poses a grave health threat to Indigenous peoples around the world”.

“Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key preventive measures, such as clean water, soap, disinfectant, etc.

“Likewise, most nearby local medical facilities, if and when there are any, are often under-equipped and understaffed.

“Even when Indigenous peoples are able to access healthcare services, they can face stigma and discrimination,” it said.

UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris said Indigenous people globally had been “disproportionately affected” by the pandemic.

He said Covid “exposed and exacerbated pre-existing structural inequalities and systemic racism”.

“The pandemic had also impacted the transmission of Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge, affecting their unique cultures,” he said in a statement.

José Francisco Cali Tzay, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said Indigenous communities were under greater danger and more likely to die of Covid-19.

“[They are] being hit the hardest by its socio-economic consequences, and their inadequate access to health care increased the likelihood of them catching the virus,” he said.

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