One in eight Indigenous people live in overcrowded housing, which poses a significant health risk given the highly contagious nature of coronavirus.
In response, without access to real-time infection data, many communities have since dispersed, heading out to the Australian bush to responsibly socially isolate – for example some families from the NSW town of Wilcannia have set up tent camps on the Darling River as a precautionary measure.
Compounded with this issue is the lack of access to vital health information in formats that are easily understood or culturally appropriate.
While the federal body, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, has developed some videos in different dialects in collaboration with First Nations leaders, distributing the information, other than through radio, to remote areas has been a challenge.
On top of this, without a means to access essential goods and services online, some remote communities have been especially hard done by coronavirus restrictions. For example, one community in Queensland was prevented from fishing for food and leaving to buy essential items under coronavirus restrictions that it later protested as ‘discriminatory’.
While many of us have been able to comply with mandatory working from home thanks to the internet enabling our jobs to continue, most Aboriginals are employed in industries that require face-to-face interaction or in casual and low-skill jobs [PDF, 1.01MB].
This problem extends to the classroom, where some teachers have had to hand-deliver lessons to Aboriginal students whose family homes lack broadband connection.
Prioritising digital literacy to boost the use of technology could help reduce the impact of all these COVID-19-inflicted challenges.
Re-evaluating the Indigenous policy agenda
In the past, previous pandemic plans have not identified or included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a priority population group.
Following the 2009 pandemic, research found that any infectious disease management must be developed in collaboration with members from Indigenous communities.
While there has been some input from First Nations elders in response to the coronavirus, we should take these COVID-19 challenges as examples of where future pandemic management efforts could be accelerated by leveraging technology.
The digital world lends itself to the mobile and remote settings of First Nations people - our Indigenous communities just need access to the right digital infrastructure and with guidance on how to access and understand the technology.
The government’s digital literacy app Your Online Journey is a good start. Launched in February last year, the app targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who are not engaging online despite having access to the internet.
But this should also be paired with on-the-ground training with digital literacy sessions that go beyond how to use a smart phone and Facebook. Lessons on practical workplace applications, like the Microsoft suite of programs, could be integrated into traineeship programs for employment in high-skill jobs, or better yet, to become skilled tech entrepreneurs.
Through policy drivers and education, technology has the potential to hugely benefit these communities, during COVID-19 and beyond.
How much longer must we talk about “closing the gap”? Let’s just do it - technology has the power to rapidly make a tangible difference.
We sing Advance Australia Fair, but do we really mean it?
In order to truly close the gap and advance Australia fair, boosting digital literacy among our First Nations people is paramount.
Nilesh Makwana is a social entrepreneur and ICT advocate. He is the CEO of Illuminance Solutions, a Microsoft Tech for Social Impact Gold Partner and Chair of West Tech Assemblage. He’s created the digital literacy training program for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia in collaboration with WA universities, including UniHall, UWA and The University of Notre Dame Australia.