The peak body for Aboriginal-controlled health services in the Northern Territory says the NT Government’s decision to reopen borders is a “major risk” and it is now “very likely” infected people will be arriving in the NT.
- The NT Government says it has measures in place to manage any coronavirus outbreaks after the reopening of borders
- But Aboriginal health groups are concerned about a second wave of the virus in the NT
- The plan to reopen borders has drawn a mixed response from NT land councils
The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory (AMSANT) said it was disappointed it had not been consulted about the Government’s decision to end mandatory quarantine for new arrivals in the NT on July 17.
“Because we are still seeing major breakouts in places like Victoria and New South Wales, we had hoped the border controls would remain in place until there was no more coronavirus in Australia or there was a vaccine,” AMSANT chief executive John Paterson said.
“The borders opening is a major risk, and we are disappointed we weren’t consulted about the decision to open the borders.
“We are concerned that we are very likely to again have infected people coming into the NT.”
The comments came after the Australian Medical Association’s NT branch president said Indigenous communities were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.
“Aboriginal people have already got much higher rates of diseases — cardiac, respiratory — and a lot more very sick and dead people could come then from this transmission,” Dr Robert Parker said.
Opening of borders proves controversial
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has said the Government has a range of measures to deal with coronavirus outbreaks once the mandatory 14-day isolation ends for interstate arrivals.
Announcing the border reopening plan on Thursday, he said the Government had a rapid response team to deal with any coronavirus cases.
“If there is ever an outbreak in the NT, this team will be on the ground straight away and the community will be quarantined while the situation is assessed and controlled,” he said.
Mr Gunner also said members of local police, as well as the Australian Defence Force, would continue to man border posts for two weeks after the July opening date to ensure people entering the NT completed arrival forms.
But the Government’s plan received a mixed response from the NT’s Indigenous land councils.
Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said the measures were not enough to allay worries of a second wave of infections.
“Although we welcome and recognise the hard work of the Health Department and the leadership of Mr Gunner, I am uneasy about this announcement,” Mr Martin-Jard said.
“When you think about a tourist coming from a hotspot like Melbourne and heading to Uluru, that has us concerned.
“We feel there is a high risk here for more infections and where there are infections in remote communities, there will probably be fatal consequences.”
Tiwi Land Council chief executive Andrew Tipungwuti said the borders were being reopened “too soon”.
“We’ve heard nothing from the government, it should not have been dropped on us,” he said.
“There is a sense of hope that this will help our economy, which is at a standstill in Tiwi, but you can’t enjoy the economy if you are dead.”
But Northern Land Council chief executive Marion Scrymgour welcomed the decision as “good news” for remote communities.
“We are confident that the appropriate measures are either in place or underway to help protect Indigenous communities,” she said.
“Although we always looked at this date with some trepidation, we cautiously welcome it because I don’t think we could have kept the borders closed for that much longer.”
The Anindilyakwa Land Council on Groote Eylandt said it welcomed the decision and the economic development that could come with it.
“The Groote Archipelago where we operate is extremely remote and our economy is expanding rapidly because of royalty incomes form the mining operations, but we need people to come in from interstate to work with us,” the Land Council’s chief executive Mark Hewitt said.
“We really want to keep the momentum going. We’re building our own boarding school, we’re setting up our own correction facility, we’re building houses, we’re setting up our own mine, and all these things require people to come in and work with us.
“There is one strong caveat that comes with that, and that is the ability to be able to respond in case we do have a problem with an outbreak of the virus.”NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles defended the border announcement and apologised for not consulting AMSANT chief executive John Paterson.
“I apologise to John Paterson that in the steps of this final decision, that they were not aware of this in the final steps,” she said.
“But this is a decision that had been made with careful consideration based on health advice.”
Ms Fyles said the NT Government would keep Aboriginal medical organisations informed of any developments.