What we know about the COVID-19 Outbreak in NT Indigenous Communities

The news and internet are a buzz this week with conflicting reports about what is happening in remote Indigenous communities located in the Northern Territory. Leanne Elliott lays out the evidence, so far.

The current COVID-19 outbreak is thought to have started in late October when a person who had been in Victoria lied to border officials and was granted passage from Cairns to Darwin. Since this incident positive cases in the Northern Territory have steadily increased with COVID-19 having now spread to remote Indigenous communities.

These communities are considered especially vulnerable to outbreaks for numerous reasons, including over crowded living conditions, larger families with high child to adult ratios, a higher prevalence of comorbidities, and barriers to health services.

On 20 November, Chief Minister Michael Gunner informed news media there was great concern about the potential for outbreaks in remote Indigenous communities.

Video posted by ABC News, 20 November 2021.

Recent News and Information

Mainstream media outlets and the Northern Territory government reported a COVID-19 positive person from the remote Indigenous community of Binjari had breached health orders and left the area, travelling to Katherine in a taxi.

The person was later found at a gathering in Katherine. It was later reported the person was not aware they had the virus.

As a result, some members of these remote areas were determined to be at risk and were subsequently moved to Centre for National Resilience quarantine facilities. The ADF has been called in to assist with transport, food deliveries and border security.

This came just days after Northern Territory Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, had announced new management plans for vulnerable and remote communities.

Gunner was quoted by ABC News as stating, “The most important public health measure you can do if you get a COVID case in a remote community is to rush to that community with the vaccine.”

The Northern Territory government has relied heavily on modelling from the Doherty Institute which suggests “vaccine surges” decreases the risk, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.

The Doherty Institute also advises the Commonwealth Government on the National Covid-19 Plan, with the Final Report to National Cabinet being released on 5 November.

Other recommendations in the report are specific to Indigenous and vulnerable communities.

Following the recent outbreaks, numerous Indigenous people from the Northern Territory have spoken publicly, encouraging Indigenous communities to get vaccinated.

In a series of tweets sent from the Howard Springs quarantine facility, where he is being treated for Covid-19, Aboriginal Health Worker Luke Ellis defended the governments actions and provided a positive insight into what being in a quarantine facility was like.

Ellis stated he was tweeting to “counterbalance all the misinformation” surrounding the government actions in numerous remote communities.

Community Leader Dickie Dixon spoke to Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and conveyed a message of thanks to the health workers deployed to the remote areas and calling on people from affected areas to respect the work health workers are doing in their communities.

As of 25 November, the number of positive cases in the Northern Territory has grown to 52, including: five positive cases in Binjari community, Robinson River reporting two positive cases and four people testing positive in Katherine.

Concerning Videos Emerge on Social Media

However, in the past few days a very different picture of these events has emerged online. Recent videos posted to social media claim Indigenous members of the remote communities are being forcibly removed, quarantined, and vaccinated.

Video by RealNews NT posted on Rumble, 24 November 2021.

The above video was posted on Rumble on 24 November by REALNewsNT shows “original members from the Sovereign Tribal Federation” calling for action to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The group raised concerns about the governments disinformation campaigns, medical coercion and disregard for human rights.

“They are not informing the people, they are lining them up, they are pressuring them, they are telling them they can’t eat in the shops, they can’t leave the community, they can’t go shopping elsewhere […] those who are fleeing to get food or fleeing from this forced vaccination are actually being fined $5000 for leaving the community,” stated Tribal Lore man and activist, Lurnpa Tjampitjimpa, also known as “David”.

“So this is marshal law, this is a war crime, this is a crime against humanity, and everything that is being implemented against humanity has been trialed and practiced on the tribal people of this continent.”

Video posted by Gumbaynggirr Parliament, 24 November 2021.

Similar appeals were made by Larrakia Elder, Aunty June Mills, who appears on video, visibly distressed and concerned about what is happening in the Northern Territory. Aunty June highlights the lack of transparency and community consultation has greatly exacerbated the fear and trauma experienced by many Indigenous families and communities.

“[…] it’s very hard for us to confirm things because the government is controlling the communications, they’re calling it a wave, that those people cannot communicate with us,” said Aunty June.

“So there’s a state of emergency here everybody, I’m putting out a cry for help to the world, um, to please help us, to come in here, stop this crimes against humanity […]”.

Official Response to Claims of Human Rights Abuses

Yesterday, Gunner addressed the news media and assured the public that the claims of forced quarantine and vaccination are false.

Video posted by The Guardian, 25 November 2021.

Gunner praised the quality of the quarantine camps and stated “I urge people not to worry about the insane, unhinged stuff that’s spreading online and that overwhelmingly comes from people who don’t live here and know nothing about us.

“99.99 percent of the BS that’s flying around the internet about the Territory is coming from flogs outside the Territory, mostly America, Canada and the UK.”

Gunner went on to say, the government “will not be distracted or intimidated by tinfoil hat wearing tossers, sitting in their parent’s basement in Florida.”

Earlier this week, Gunner made no effort to hide his disdain for people who have criticised vaccine mandates, calling them anti-vaxers regardless of their vaccine status.

“If you are anti mandate, you are absolutely anti vax, I don’t care what your personal vaccination status is,” said Gunner.

Video posted by The Guardian, 22 November 2021.

Joining Gunner in his criticism of online disinformation surrounding events unfolding in the Northern Territory, Defense Commander, Colonel Tim Rutherford has labelled the claims as “emphatically false” and said the claims were being made by “issue motivated groups”. Colonel Rutherford also reported there had been no complaints from the locked down communities of Binjari and Rockhole.

A video posted to NT News on 25 November shows a Rockhole resident talking about the recent hard lockdowns and thanking the various organisations and people who supported the community. The Rockhole resident also refuted claims community members had been forcibly vaccinated.

Vaccine Information Snapshot

The latest statistics found on the Northern Territory government website shows 95% of 16+years and 70% of 12-15 years have received their first vaccine, while 84% of 16+years and 50% of 12-15 years have had their second vaccine.

The website also contains data specific to remote Northern Territory communities and reports 77% have received their first vaccine, with 62% having received a second vaccine.

However, some areas in Central Australia and the Barkly region are shown as having a second dose rate of less than 15%.

The Northern Territory government website reports that Robinson River and surrounding homelands will remain in a lockout state until 1 December. Binjari remains in hard lockdown, with no end date stipulated. As of 25 November 2021, Rockhole shifted from hard lockdown to lockdown.

Despite their website stating it will “help safeguard the human rights of all people in our community”, The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and many human rights interest groups continue to remain silent about the rights of Australians who chose not to be vaccinated. The AHRC is primarily limited to matters relating to the Federal government, however, it has raised concerns over the lack of government transparency, scrutiny and accountability. According to the AHRC website, the Commission has provided information and support to the Australian government and organisations on the frontline throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so during the recovery phase.

Needless to say, all eyes are now focusing on the Northern Territory as the situation unfolds.

Feature Image by Nothing Ahead from Pexels, edited by Leanne Elliott, Staff Writer.

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