Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders and organisations are credited with leading an extraordinary COVID-19 response in 2020 which kept Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities safe, and meant that there was not one Aboriginal death from COVID-19. In response to the recent COVID-19 outbreaks across the country, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations have again gone into overdrive to help protect their communities.
This is why it’s so strange and concerning that NACCHO, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, was excluded from the first meeting of Operation COVID Shield, the national COVID-19 vaccine taskforce, on Tuesday (6 July).
The National Closing the Gap Agreement promises an unprecedented shift to shared decision-making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to close the gap in health outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and other Australians. This Agreement recognises that the Australian and State and Territory Governments must ‘listen to the voices and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ and change the way they work in response.
Shared decision-making means both sides have an equal say, in all parts of the process. It can’t just be when it suits the government, and it can’t go out the window in a crisis.
Thirty years ago, in the spirit of self-determination, Professor Fred Hollows said Aboriginal people “will not be healthy until they are running their own health services”. This remains true today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples must be involved in every stage of the design and delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out. Despite the early successes in 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are still amongst the most vulnerable to COVID-19. NACCHO and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have the right knowledge and are in the right place to design and lead a vaccination program for their own communities that is culturally safe and accessible. The Australian Government does not have this expertise.
As allies, it’s the role of non-Indigenous organisations to support the calls of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership. We must rally in the cry that the only right thing for the Australian Government to do is partner with NACCHO Aboriginal community-controlled organisations in making such critical decisions. We must join our voices and demand that governments do better and live up to the commitments of the National Closing the Gap Agreement.
The theme for this year’s NAIDOC week is Heal Country. Part of that healing is learning from past injustices and making sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have a rightful seat at the table in making decisions that will affect them now, and at all times in the future. A very simple and small step towards that is to listen and include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the COVID-19 vaccine roll out. Not in subsequent meetings, not at some time in the future. Right now, from the start, every step of the way.
PHOTO CREDIT: Barry Skipsey