By Professor Stan Grant Jnr, Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University.
The fight against COVID-19 has tested us: not just our health or our economy, but the very idea of who we are. The virus has attacked not the thing we hold most dear: our freedom. We have been locked down, cut off from each other, police monitoring our movements.
It has been a collective sacrifice for the greater good and even in our isolation we have drawn strength from each other. Musicians have played online concerts, we have formed zoom book clubs, I have been involved in several virtual conferences, bringing us together, alone.
Yet not everyone is so fortunate; there are those who suffer more than others. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that the most vulnerable – the poor, the sick, the elderly, the homeless – continue to bear the greatest burden.
I have thought a lot about Indigenous people on the front line, keeping our communities safe, keeping our people alive. They are heroic, everyday dedicating themselves to serve others.
My sister, Joanne, is CEO of Katungal Aboriginal Corporation which delivers health and community services for the Indigenous community of the New South Wales South Coast based out of Bateman’s Bay. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, she was being interviewed on ABC radio about the impact on her community.
These were the people who not that long ago were at ground zero of the summer bushfires. Now they were bracing for the worst of this potentially killer virus. Joanne explained these are communities already under unbearable stress. Life threatening illness is nothing new. It is a fact of life.
It is common for people that my sister provides for to be suffering multiple conditions. As she said some in her community suffer up to 10 chronic illnesses. These are people already enduring crippling poverty; inter-generational unemployment; overcrowded homes. They are born into a legacy of trauma; a history that weighs down hard.
I can’t help think Australia has become blasé about this. Each year we recount the closing the gap statistics and each year they tell us the same story: the worst health, housing, education and employment outcomes of any Australians. We are the most impoverished and imprisoned people in Australia.
Year after year we are told the same grim story: Indigenous people die on average about 10 years younger than the rest of the population. Yet the closing gap report comes and goes, we talk about it for a day then move on.
Just another day in Black Australia.
My sister, Joanne, told the ABC that the struggle for funding means she cannot set long-term strategies. Rather than implement a much needed 10 year plan, she survives from year to year.
Australians are feeling vulnerable and uncertain right now. Indigenous communities live with this daily. Those who may otherwise ask why Aboriginal people can’t lift themselves up by their bootstraps; who may tell us to work harder or toughen up, might now think again.
Reconciliation Week this year has a deeper resonance. If we are to be a better society when we emerge from this crisis then we cannot allow First Nations people to continue to suffer what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls ‘the torment of our powerlessness’.
Reconciliation was born out of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s failure to deliver a promised treaty in 1984. Since then reconciliation has trumped rights. Corporation reconciliation action plans - worthy as they are – are more about jobs than justice.
There have been some wonderful moments of solidarity and healing: the bridge walk in 2000; the National apology in 2008; but reconciliation as a political project is adrift. Yawuru man, Peter Yu, reflecting on three decades of struggle in a 2018 speech at the Australian National University, indicated reconciliation ‘no longer exists’.
It had failed to heal the wounds of our past or reach a political settlement with First Nations people. Reconciliation, Yu said, ‘has lost its moral and political gravitas’.
The COVID-19 crisis will pass, businesses will re-open, people will return to work, sport will resume: but the struggle of my sister and thousands of others just like her will continue. They will still be battling the seemingly endless list of chronic diseases that put too many of our people into early graves. They will be crunching the numbers, trying to make what they have stretch for another year.
Australians this year have felt just a little of what too many Indigenous people experience each day: health crisis; economic uncertainty; loss of liberty. Next year when the Prime Minister delivers the closing the gap report, surely we will know that could be all of us.
COVID-19 has tested our strength. It has challenged our nation’s moral and ethical character. We are rightly proud of how we have risen to this moment. But while the first people of this land continue to be locked out of the full greatness of Australia we are a nation diminished.
If indeed we are all in this together, now is the time to mean it.