Indigenous COVID response, 'moral failure'

Only 73.2 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 16 have had two vaccine doses.
Only 73.2 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 16 have had two vaccine doses.

Indigenous COVID-19 vaccination rates lag behind those for other Australians due to poor federal and state government planning, researchers say.

Coupled with a revolving door approach to vaccine advice, it has led to a shortage of trained workers to put jabs in arms and vaccine hesitancy in vulnerable communities, according to the University of NSW team.

"This substantial policy oversight reflects a failure of moral human rights responsibility for Australian First Nations people," say the authors of the paper published in Jama Health Forum.

It has also undermined planning, strategy and prevention work undertaken by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.

The researchers say existing inequalities including poor health care access, overcrowded living conditions and chronic health issues should have led to a more targeted and prioritised response.

Instead, it has increased the risk of the virus spreading, chronic illness and death in hundreds of communities across the country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander double dose rates languish about 20 per cent lower than the national average.

"It is evident governments have not been listening or properly consulting with First Nation peoples," says Indigenous health expert Professor Mick Adams.

"They are playing catch-up as the virus spreads into remote communities, with Yuendumu in the Northern Territory the latest remote community hit."

The outbreak, 295km northwest of Alice Springs, has grown to 43 cases in recent days as authorities scramble to push vaccination rates up.

The community of about 1000 residents has received an influx of health workers and the double dose rate has climbed from 41 per cent to 58 per cent in the past week.

"The uncertainty of government messaging has led to confusion and people have not prepared in rural and remote communities," Adams says.

The UNSW research team says the federal government needs to redouble efforts and properly protect Indigenous communities instead of leaving it to the states and territories, which has led to inadequate and inconsistent preparedness.

"Government must listen with intent and act on advice from community health councils and health action teams, community groups, including men's and women's groups, justice groups and Elder groups," says Indigenous academic Lyndon Reilly.

"The key is to listen and then urgently translate this advice into policy and action."

The Australian Health Department rejected the assessment, saying it has worked with the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector to rollout vaccines in a culturally appropriate way.

"Throughout the pandemic, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services have been prioritised for access to vaccines," a spokeswoman says.

"Where any ACCHS identified that an increase in vaccine allocation was needed to support demand, their request for additional supply was rapidly supported."

According to the department, the work was acknowledged in parliament by National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations chief Pat Turner.

"There is no issue with supply," he told the COVID Select Senate Committee in October.

"As soon as the ACCHOs send their numbers of doses, which they do fortnightly, and those are received, the numbers of doses they request are dispatched within one week by the Commonwealth Department of Health."

In addition, the Commonwealth has supplied extra funding through NACCHO to purchase required equipment including vaccine fridges.

The department says $29.4 million has been handed to NACCHO for pandemic preparation, response and vaccine rollout, including $6.9 million in 2020 to facilitate culturally safe testing access.

In the Northern Territory, where more than 30 per cent of the population is Indigenous, the government says it has worked with community leaders, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and land councils throughout the pandemic.

"We have also been working hard to supply COVID-19 vaccine doses to remote communities and engage with people in remote communities to get vaccinated," a spokesman says.

NT Health says its teams have offered the vaccine door to door in low vaccination rate communities and partnered with local organisations and leaders to develop strategies to bolster the remote rollout.

"This includes local messaging in language," the spokesman says.

According to Commonwealth data, just 73.2 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 16 have had two vaccine doses.

Nationally, 92.3 per cent of all Australians in the same age category are fully vaccinated.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates the 2021 Indigenous Australian population at 881,600.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and its NT representative have been contacted for comment.

Australian Associated Press