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Disaster on our doorstep: Covid takes a hold on indigenous communities

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Fixing overcrowded housing in Indigenous communities is key to protecting vulnerable people from COVID-19 amid a Northern Territory outbreak fuelling a Labor senator’s “worst fears”.

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Jab rates for Indigenous people continue to lag across every state and territory. Just under 58 per cent of Australia’s over-16 Indigenous population is double-dosed.

Across Queensland, the rates are even lower in some regions. According to the latest Federal Government figures, just 31.25 per cent of the Indigenous population aged 15 and over are fully vaccinated in the Cairns region. In Central Queensland, the figure is 32.76 per cent, Townsville is 34.10 per cent and the Mackay and Isaac region is 34.63 per cent.

Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy’s family members are at the centre of a Northern Territory outbreak infecting 11 Indigenous people across Katherine and the remote community of Robinson River.

About 52 per cent of Indigenous people are fully vaccinated in the territory, while 72 per cent have received one dose.

“This is our worst fears realised,” Senator McCarthy told ABC TV on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to arrest this in terms of the COVID outbreak before we can actually really seriously consider when it is safe to open up.

“Our deepest fear here is that has spread across the territory.”

Her sister carried the virus into Robinson River and nine of the politician’s family members tested positive on Tuesday.

She called for immediate support to fix overcrowding in remote community houses.

“Overcrowding is a massive issue across Australia for First Nations people,” Senator McCarthy said.

“How can people isolate when they’re 15 to 20 people to a house for starters?”

She also said misinformation was being targeted at Indigenous communities.

“We have got over 100 Aboriginal languages just here in the Northern Territory, more across Australia, and the first time really that First Nations media received funding was in September,” the senator said.

“In the meantime, that gap was being filled by misinformation, from overseas right-wing extremists but also from the backbenchers of Scott Morrison’s government.”

Aboriginal health bodes are calling for a ramping up of vaccination rates for First Nations peoples especially as holiday season approaches and people start travelling across borders again.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Chair, Professor Peter O’Mara, said it was now critical to get vaccination rates up.

“As Australia opens up and we move to a new normal of living with COVID-19 in the community, we are going to see many more positive cases. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already face considerable health inequities and higher rates of chronic disease they are more at risk of severe illness and death from this virus.

“The fact that there remains a serious gap in vaccine coverage between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people in our country is a national shame.”

In the NT outbreak, people are being stopped from entering or leaving Robinson River or surrounding homelands under federal biosecurity rules.

Masks are mandatory across the territory and a lockdown of Katherine will run until at least Monday.

Double-dose vaccination rates among Indigenous Australians are as low as 34 per cent. The ACT has the highest Indigenous full vaccination rate of 84 per cent.

Australia’s overall double-dose rate has surpassed 83 per cent for people aged 16 and older.

Queensland recorded no new locally acquired cases on Wednesday and one overseas acquired case in hotel quarantine.

Victoria reported 996 new infections and nine more deaths, while NSW racked up 231 additional infections.

The ACT on Tuesday recorded 12 new cases.

It’s the most cases diagnosed in the NT in a 24-hour period, with fears they could lead to infections in dozens more Aboriginal people.

“This is a lot of cases. These are all Aboriginal Territorians. This makes real every fear that we’ve had,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner told reporters on Tuesday.

All 11 cases are household contacts and live in Katherine, about 320 kilometres south of Darwin.

Overcrowded housing and low vaccination rates trouble many Indigenous communities across the NT, with reports some homes in Robinson River have 20 occupants.

“It’s been a concern in all our remote communities,” Gunner said.

“Delta has close to a 100 per cent infection rate … so it does concern us if it gets into any household, particularly an overcrowded household.

“It’s going to see a lot of people test positive.”

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