When she was growing up, Ngaree Blow used to read statistics about the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and wonder, “does that mean I’m going to die early?”
- Indigenous communities have avoided large COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic
- Doctors are adapting First Nations health principles with diverse communities
- Ngaree Blow says the Indigenous health gap is linked to inequalities in justice, education and housing
The figures showed First Nations people had, on average, had a significantly lower life expectancy than the rest of the population.
They showed increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, renal disease and host of other health issues.
“That’s where my passion led to uncovering what those statistics actually mean, and how that links into our knowledge and understanding of health and wellbeing as Aboriginal people,” Dr Blow said.
Dr Blow has emerged as a prominent Indigenous health advocate in the years since completing her medical degree.
She is the director of First Nations health at the University of Melbourne’s medical school, a board member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association and was previously a researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
The Noonuccal, Yorta-Yorta woman is a niece of late Victorian elders Reg and Walda Blow, and her father Gene is also an elder in Queensland’s Moreton Bay region.
Dr Blow believes the health challenges facing First Nations people are linked to inequalities in other areas, such as the justice, education and housing systems.
“By improving the health and wellbeing of our First Nations people, it will have positive flow-on effects for the rest of the country,” she said.
Indigenous communities have managed to stave off COVID-19
Dr Blow said the holistic approach used to tackle health in Aboriginal communities had shone during the pandemic, with no significant outbreaks of COVID-19 occurring.
“It’s not just looking at infection or the transmission, but actually looking at every element of what affects the wellbeing of not just an individual, but a community,” she said.
“We have larger family groups that tend to all be in one household, therefore there’s a higher risk of transmission infectious diseases.
“It’s really important to get those public health messages out early.”
In recent months, Dr Blow has been working with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 response team, to adapt some First Nations health principles for other Melbourne communities.
“It wasn’t saying that what we do for Aboriginal people is going to be fine for other culturally and linguistically diverse communities. It was rather using those principles of making sure we had local community health groups involved, and making sure we communicated with the local community about what was going on,” she said.
“Also, making sure that there was an understanding of what the Government was doing, rather than it seeming like the Government was dictating what was happening.”
Lessons learned after housing tower ‘chaos’
Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 badly affected residents in Melbourne’s outer north and west — areas with high cultural and linguistic diversity.
There were complaints about health messaging not reaching ethnically diverse communities, and even when it did, there were cases of poorly-translated material.
The hard and sudden lockdown of crowded social housing towers, home to some of the city’s most disadvantaged, left some residents traumatised and feeling like they were “in a prison”.
While Dr Blow was not directly involved in the health response to the towers outbreak, she believes some mistakes were made.
“I think the public health principles were a bit lost in the chaos of it all,” she said.
“The department as a whole really did a lot of reflection on what went well, and what could have been improved in that situation.”
As Victoria recorded another day of no new cases or deaths, Dr Blow said the team was continuing to consolidate its work in the community, and said it remained prepared to respond if new outbreaks occurred.