Image of an Indigenous health practitioner taking a blood pressure reading on her patient

First Nations peoples team up with mining industry in Australia to lead COVID-19 crisis response

Introduction: Geoff Healy, Chief External Affairs Officer.

While it’s still too early to know the full scale of the COVID-19 impact, the work to keep the pandemic from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia has so far been highly effective.

The Aboriginal community-led health sector moved early, and the results have been incredible. Through their experience, knowledge and extensive networks, they have saved many lives. BHP has been pleased to support with funding that enables their vital work.

When you look over a hundred years of BHP operating in Australia, the relationship with Indigenous peoples is as important and close as it gets. This has gone through many evolutions and it will continue to evolve and strengthen, as it has through this pandemic.

At BHP, we knew our immediate response needed to involve doing everything we could within our control. This included ceasing face-to-face engagement with Traditional Owners, putting in place strict protocols for our people working in remote areas, and enabling Aboriginal employees and contractors to return to country during the period of travel restrictions. In addition, almost a quarter of the A$27 million we’ve invested from the BHP Vital Resources Fund has been used to support Aboriginal communities, including telehealth services and self-isolation accommodation.

Pat Turner, the CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), and her state-based counterparts led the successful health response to the pandemic. We know there's no room for complacency. It's important that we remain vigilant and that’s where our engagement with organisations such as NACCHO can make a real difference.

Prospects speaks to Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), about the risks to Indigenous communities and the role the mining industry played in supporting the response.

NACCHO is a national peak body representing 143 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services across Australia and provides 90 per cent of healthcare in remote Aboriginal communities.

Prospects: How did you react when you first learned about the coronavirus pandemic?

Pat: In January, we became very alarmed by the outbreak. Our minds went immediately to the swine flu outbreak in 2009, which disproportionately affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I wasn’t directly involved in that, but I do know there was no nationally coordinated response and nothing comparable to the national advisory committee and plans directed to our First Nations people that we established in response to COVID-19. Swine flu gave the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector more insight into pandemics and how best to get together and respond effectively. 


What did NACCHO do to prepare for the pandemic?

Aboriginal medical services in the Kimberly region in WA immediately started ordering supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). They got their stocks up early and quickly before the mad rush in late March and April.

We started a conversation early in our sector because until international travel restrictions were fully implemented in Australia, we were at risk of COVID-19 getting in.

Since February, we began sharing pandemic plans. We worked with Aboriginal health workers on the frontline and the medical and public health officers to plan our approach to COVID-19 and also manage other health issues such as how we rolled out the 2020 flu vaccination program.

In early March, I went on national media to warn how devastating COVID-19 would be because of the living conditions and overcrowded housing in our remote communities. A three bedroom house will often have 15-20 people sharing one bathroom and they are lucky if they have working white goods.

We set up a national advisory committee on COVID-19 to look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community requirements, plan the public health response with health service CEOs, medical officers and experts, and keep the National Cabinet informed.

What have been the results? What do you think has worked well?

So far our efforts have worked, with only 59 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people testing positive and we’ve had no deaths in regional or metropolitan areas.

This is because we have all of our member affiliate organisations on the front foot looking at workforce issues, making sure staff have proper supplies of all PPE and that we have isolation facilities for people with COVID-19 symptoms. We developed culturally relevant resources to explain the risks to communities. And we’re also rolling out rapid testing equipment across the country.

Telehealth has been a godsend and it’s something we want to maintain going forward to help continuity of care under difficult circumstances.

What are the risks? What would happen if you didn’t take early action?

The remote communities are the biggest danger point. We knew if we left remote communities unattended and didn’t take special measures with housing, chronic illness and service availability then the risks could be devastating. But we can’t ignore COVID-19 in metropolitan areas.

In March, before the government enforced restrictions, I sent the Prime Minister and all the state premiers and territory chief ministers who sat on the National Cabinet a paper outlining all the measures necessary to protect remote communities. I asked them to impose restrictions.

A couple of weeks later, [Federal Health Minister] Greg Hunt put in place the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act to restrict access to remote communities with a view to lifting measures on 16 June. Easing restrictions are now under review and our sector is working with the states and territories on any changes.

How have you worked with the mining industry to support remote communities? 

The mining industry has been effective in providing isolation facilities, especially in the Kimberley, for people who have COVID-19 symptoms and can’t self-isolate in their home. We have an ongoing relationships between mining companies and our sector, especially in the Kimberly.

BHP has been extraordinarily generous by funding over $3.3 million direct to our member affiliates. They are on the front foot and worked with us early to get supplies and services where we needed them most. The funding helped us buy iPads for telehealth services and also keeping kids engaged and connected with school.

How are you planning for recovery?

It depends on how quickly state borders in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia are lifted. There are also potential hotspots in tourist areas like Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park because those desert areas get extremely cold and visitors might be asymptomatic and spread the coronavirus.

We are working out our health emergency response for these areas. All tourist areas are busting their guts to open. We have to get the balance right between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism enterprises and our communities’ health needs.

Our success at managing this crisis has actually shown that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the best people to determine how health issues are managed that affect their communities.