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COVID-19: Indigenous perspectives
COVID-19: The need to boost digital literacy in Indigenous communities
Nilesh Makwana explains how the coronavirus pandemic is perpetuating the digital divide between First Nation peoples and the rest of Australia and what needs to be done to close it.
COVID-19 has highlighted that our ‘land of the fair go' actually has a long way to go.
Amid enforced COVID-19 social distancing, isolation and lockdown restrictions, the digital world has very much been a lifeline to the ‘real world’ for many Australians.
From receiving vital COVID-19 information via mobile phone apps and accessing the internet to book the delivery of essential goods to enabling working from home or continuing schooling with online remote learning, never before has our reliance on technology been so apparent.
But not all Australians have had equal opportunity to harness this power of digital connection.
While mobile phone use is slightly higher, with 43 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities owning a smartphone, these statistics are still significantly lower than the rest of Australia’s population.
Even more worrying is the fact that most of the country’s real-time pandemic response communications have been facilitated online, either via the official Australian government WhatsApp channel for COVID-19, the Coronavirus Australia app and most recently the launch of the COVIDSafe app.
Without widespread access or technology know-how, COVID-19 has exacerbated the already existing digital literacy divide among our First Nation people.
And it’s just the latest pandemic to disproportionately impact one of our country’s most vulnerable populations.
How much wider must the gap get and how many more pandemics will it take before we set our public policy priorities straight?
Vulnerability during past pandemics
Historically, Indigenous communities have experienced higher disease infection rates than the rest of Australia’s population time and time again, dating back to and caused by the earliest days of European colonisation.
Just 15 months after the first arrival of the First Fleet in 1789 smallpox spread throughout the Sydney area wiping out almost all of the Gadigal people, with historians estimating a 50 to 90 per cent death rate.
Two hundred years later, when the Spanish flu hit at the end of the First World War, Aboriginal communities reportedly recorded a mortality rate of 50 per cent, despite Australia’s death rate of 2.7 per 1000 people overall being one of the lowest recorded of any country during this pandemic.
It’s important to remember that these rates could in fact be a lot higher, considering it wasn’t until 1967 that the Australian constitution was changed to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be included in the census.
The turn of a century didn’t bring about much change: during the 2009 influenza pandemic (Swine Flu), one study focused on the Top End of the Northern Territory found that Indigenous Australians recorded higher hospitalisation rates than those reported elsewhere in Australia and overseas.
More puzzling is that, during my research looking for sources online, I found there was very little data available on how the First Nations people have been affected by past pandemics – even as recent as 2009.
Whether that’s due to the research complexities surrounding the disproportionately remote setting of our First Nations people or otherwise, it’s evident there is a serious disconnect.
Considering these communities are historically –- and still are – the most vulnerable to disease, with about 50 per cent of adult First Nations people living with major chronic diseases, it’s alarming.
Technology could be the connecting platform, better yet, the best frontline of defence against future pandemics due to the potential of telehealth, instant distribution of health information and the ability to remain ‘connected’ to others and work while in isolation.
But COVID-19 has highlighted we’ve got a long way to go – and we have a chance to act now, before history repeats itself again.
How Indigenous communities have adapted to COVID-19
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