BHP community partnership launches new quarantine facility for Indigenous people

Aboriginal people who develop influenza or coronavirus symptoms will soon have access to a new facility in Newman as part of a program aimed at protecting Indigenous communities against the coronavirus outbreak.

BHP is partnering with EPIS Inc. (East Pilbara Independence Support) to launch a four-bedroom facility, with an additional 15 facilities available if required by the Newman community. This program is part of BHP’s A$50 million Vital Resources Fund established last month to support communities near our operations as they navigate the pandemic.

The quarantine facility targets elderly, frail or disabled people who are unable to isolate in their communities if they develop coronavirus-like symptoms or have been in contact with a person who has tested positive to coronavirus. While Newman is situated upon the traditional land of the Nyiyaparli people, modern Newman is home to many diverse Aboriginal peoples, with a strong Martu population in particular.

“We are looking at the potential impacts on the wider Newman community,” EPIS Chief Executive Officer Vicki Kershaw said. “If these people, who are amongst the most vulnerable, develop coronavirus like symptoms it is difficult for them to self-isolate. A significant number of these people encounter challenges when accessing suitable housing, making it impossible to self-isolate and keep themselves and the wider community safe.”

EPIS will provide nursing care and support round-the-clock until residents recover or require hospitalisation if their condition worsens. The team at EPIS continues to educate clients about good hand hygiene practices using both detergent and water, as well as hand sanitiser and social distancing. Anyone visiting the compound will be temperature tested and assessed for symptoms before they access the facility, and additional environmental cleaning required for the COVID-19 pandemic will take place to reduce risk of cross infection.

EPIS also operates a 24-hour respite centre, a day care facility and offers food, domestic support, nursing, outreach and transport services for at risk members of the community. The organisation takes clients on trips back to their homelands to give them the opportunity to reconnect with their land.

“We are attempting to be on the ‘front foot’ and set this facility up to mitigate some of the risk for both our clients and the wider community,” Vicki said.

She said the Western Desert communities had been locked down for some time. Families have been supported to travel back to their communities in the earlier stages of the outbreak to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading into these small remote communities.

BHP General Manager of Newman Operations, Marie Bourgoin, said the facility was critical because available housing options did not meet the needs of all Martu families in the present circumstances. Overcrowding remains an issue for many families and that impedes their ability to practice social distancing. 

“Providing a facility with full time care and medical support means that elders are able to self-quarantine or take respite from their families at times of illness, which will limit their interactions with hospitals and protect their family circle and extended community,” she said.

“This project will ensure that our most at-risk community members have the best chance of staying well and healthy during the uncertain times to come.”

BHP has provided people, resources, financial support and leveraged contractors to educate communities on COVID-19 risks and give them the option of returning to country. 

The Return to Country program is a partnership with the Shire of East Pilbara, Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation (WDLAC), Kanyirrinpa Jukurrpa (KJ), Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS), EPIS, WA Police, Department of Communities and other service providers.

“Elderly Martu residents of Newman are a vital part of our community and we must do everything we can to ensure that they have quality support services through this pandemic,” Marie said. “Our work is focused on ensuring their health and safety so they can continue to stay on their land.”

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