The privilege of pandemic safety

Privilege is playing out in how we respond to COVID-19 and Carissa Lee argues coronavirus could hit First Nations Australians harder as colonial prejudice and isolation bite deep.

Prime Minister Morrison has gradually been putting protocols in place to assist with ‘flattening the curve’ of COVID-19, the latest iteration of Coronavirus. Since the early murmurings of self-isolation/self-quarantine, and the fast spread of this virus, people who had the means (money and space) to do so wasted no time in beginning to hoard essential items.

The public’s reaction to the virus and the subsequent new quarantine protocols that we must all abide by has got me thinking about privilege.

Moments of crisis bring out the beauty and generosity of creative minds. In comparison, when it comes to life essentials and the basic decency to allow access to everyone, behind the façade of civility and status stirs an ugly undercurrent of white privilege, churned up by the hysteria that comes with the ruthless self-preservation of the entitled.

Before the hoarding even began, racist attacks were one of the first signs of the general public showing their true nature. One of the disadvantages of COVID-19 news dominating newsfeeds and front pages is that the public aren’t aware of the racist attacks that are continuing during the pandemic: stories such as a man aggressively filming Asian people in Brisbane, people at a Melbourne hospital refusing to let Asian doctors treat their children, and people refusing to eat Chinese food for fear of contracting the virus.

First Nations People being left behind

The racism has extended to Aboriginal communities as well, affecting First Nation’s people’s access to tests, essential supplies, and their ability to get through this pandemic, despite the fact that First Nations people are at greater risk from the virus than non-Indigenous people.

Medical professionals are also conducting themselves unprofessionally. At a hospital in regional New South Wales, President of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, Dr Kris Rallah-Baker, stated that Aboriginal people were being turned away from getting tested for the coronavirus if they had not recently been overseas, and that non-Indigenous doctors would only screen ‘genuine’ Aboriginals. Another incident took place in a Western Australian hospital where a comment was made that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients ‘only get it [coronavirus] because they don’t wash their hands’.

Although it might seem like words shouldn’t mean much to people seeking medical treatment, this could have catastrophic results if Indigenous people feel like they can’t go to these hospitals or medical centres for fear of facing discrimination of some kind – which could potentially be a factor in First Nations people going undiagnosed with this disease.

The Prime Minister has reminded us of the gaping health gap in this country by publicly stating that the age limit for the elderly going out is 50 years old for First Nations people and 70 for non-Indigenous people. But even with recommendations from the President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Tony Bartone, who called for the National Cabinet to ‘urgently fund and resource Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander health services to ensure they can respond to Covid-19,’ it feels like there isn’t much in the way of support for Aboriginal people to get access to testing. This impression is only strengthened when we see Aboriginal medical centres in New South Wales struggling with COVID-19 testing due to the lack of personal protective equipment, while this last week some Victorian Aboriginal Health Centres have had to cease COVID-19 testing after running out of personal protective equipment completely.

It especially feels like the Federal Government has not considered how remote First Nations communities will deal with new protocols such as the suspension of non-essential medical procedures. Western Australian ophthalmologist, Dr Angus Turner expressed concerns about distressed vision-impaired patients in remote communities who might not have access to their routine injections that allow them to be able to see. Another issue is medical professionals being unable to get to areas where their patients lives, such as nursing staff being unable to get from the Northern Territory to the APY lands due to border quarantine restrictions.

In a recent article for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Dr Sam Heard, the  Medical Director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation, appealed to available older health practitioners to make their way out to these remote areas to assist with delivering medical services, because there aren’t any COVID-19 cases.


Because First Nations people are highest at risk, remote communities have been put under strict lock-down. However, there are pre-existing issues in these communities that should also be remedied to assist with safe quarantining: issues such as inadequate housing situations for families, causing overcrowding and leading to high rates of chronic disease.  

Also, for people in situations where home is not the safest place, there aren’t places for them to go to. Dr Kyllie Cripps from the UNSW Faculty of Law states that ‘we know that increased isolation, stress, and lack of community accountability – because everyone is self-isolating – is a dangerous environment for people in domestic and family violence situations’.

As well as being unable to provide decent housing options for First Nations families in general, Kripps went on to say that options for transitional housing for people fleeing unsafe situations are critically low, recommending that people in these circumstances try services such as Link2Home when trying to find somewhere to stay.

Some of these remote areas don’t even have health centres, and those that do have minimal staff. In places like Broome, where Indigenous people have been sleeping rough and living homeless, it begs the question of how these people are supposed to be able to self-quarantine. There is also a fear in communities that elders will be too fearful to go to overcrowded hospitals, because the younger people who have this disease might be prioritised first, leaving elders to die from this disease.

However, some communities have taken matters into their own hands, using their remote location as an advantage to enable social distancing. Aboriginal-led organisations such as the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress have called for control zones in Central Australia, the Northern Land Council, the Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, and the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea border cross-regions, ceasing new permits for visitors. All non-urgent travel and visits by government and non-government agencies have also been cancelled.

So while people are gathering at the beach, or continuing to attend large gatherings, they need to remember that they’re not just putting themselves at risk, but everyone around them – including vulnerable people such as the elderly and immunocompromised. Thanks to colonisation, the latter includes Aboriginal people.

‘What happens in the rest of the country affects us heavily,’ said Sarah Brown, the chief executive of the Western Desert dialysis service. ‘People who can stay home, please stay home! Do it for yourselves, but do it for us too.’

Carissa Lee
About the Author
Carissa is a Wemba-Wemba and Noongar professional actor and writer as well as currently undertaking her PhD through the University of Melbourne. Carissa also works as a specialist editor for ANZSOG’s First Peoples collection with the Analysis Policy Observatory at Swinburne University. An active member of the First Nations Australia Writing Network (FNAWN), her writing has appeared in Witness Performance, Junkee, The Melbourne Writers Festival, The Conversation, Lip Mag, and Book Riot. During her career as a performer, Carissa has featured on stages with La Mama, Melbourne Theatre Company, the Malthouse Theatre, and State Theatre Company of South Australia. Most recently, Carissa portrayed Charles Manson in Robert Reid’s reimagining of The Bacchae this year at La Mama. Carissa also maintains a love for onscreen work, regularly appearing in films, TVCs, music videos, and campaigns such as Deadly Questions.