With restrictions on visiting regional NSW lifting in just a few weeks, Sarah Tayler finds out whether you should be travelling to remote Aboriginal communities, even if the government says it’s ok.
With typically more health concerns and a lower life expectancy, Aboriginal people are much more at risk of poor outcomes if they contract COVID, and the vaccination rate in some rural areas is lower than in the cities. With this in mind, what are the ethical implications of travelling to areas with a high Aboriginal population once travel starts again?
You may want to spend your tourist dollars in remote areas in desperate need of income, but do these communities want this money at the risk of their health? I sought out opinions from both the health and tourism perspective to help visitors decide the right thing to do when it comes to travelling regionally.
Trevor Kapeen, an Aboriginal health worker from Bulgarr Ngaru Medical Aboriginal Corporation in the Clarence Valley, has been working with communities all over Northern NSW for several years. I spoke to him about the risks First Nations communities face when tourists come to town.
‘Aboriginal people are at greater risk from COVID for many reasons,’ explains Trevor. ‘If the virus does get into community it spreads more easily because we live in larger family groups.’
‘Aboriginal families are very close and sometimes in homes you might have 10-15 people living in a house. With that many people living in the house all it takes is one person going to see a friend of a friend of a friend and they bring the virus back.’
‘It can, and it will, spread quickly if it gets into communities. Aboriginal people are a close-knit people, we stick together. We look after each other in the best way we can.’
This rapid rate of spread became clear when an outbreak of COVID started in the outback Aboriginal community of Wilcannia in August this year. 10 hours west of Sydney, Wilcannia is a small town on the Barrier Highway with limited medical facilities and resources.
There was much uproar from the Wilcannia and wider community as the overcrowding of houses has long been an issue in the area, creating concern for the vulnerability of large families unable to follow the isolation rules if the virus were to spread to the town.
In total, 152 people (20% of the town’s population) caught the virus and one person was hospitalised, but thankfully there were no deaths. Brought under control in just two months, the result from the outbreak was much better than health providers had predicted and it’s thought that the town’s relatively young population probably helped prevent any deaths.
More to Lose Than Just Money
Communities with a more elderly population may not be able to avoid deaths like Wilcannina managed to, and as Trevor explains, it’s not just people’s lives that are at stake but their cultural knowledge too.
‘We have elderly people that are frail and aged, and elderly people are our knowledge holders. They may not have passed the knowledge on to community at this stage because it’s a slow process….that’s what we could lose if people come to community with the virus or people in community don’t have the vaccination.’
Scepticism About the Vaccine
As in much of Australia, the convoluted messages from the government about the vaccine has meant that the rollout has been much slower than expected in these communities.
‘The vaccination rate among Aboriginal people is still a lot lower than non-Aboriginal people,’ explains Trevor. ‘Our people are taking up the vaccine and understanding a bit more. But there’s a lot of misinformation out there.’
On top of misinformation and conspiracies floating about on social media, some people in Aboriginal communities have mistrust when it comes to government medical advice, which is understandable given the history.
‘One of the conspiracies clients have told me is they [the government] put a microchip in your arm so they can follow you around. What they don’t understand is that while they have their phone in their hand, it doesn’t matter what anyone is putting in their arm,’ Trevor said.
‘At the start, it was only older people suffering from the virus, now you see kids, people in their 20s and 30s dying from the virus. So the virus does not discriminate, it grabs hold of anyone. We are not immune from the virus, no matter what age.’
Has lockdown affected the economy of rural areas?
Outback towns tend to rely on traffic passing through spending money in their shops and small businesses to provide employment. With lockdowns and restrictions, I wanted to find out how this has changed the economy in communities.
‘Unemployment is certainly a bit worse now that we don’t have visitors coming to community. Especially for people who make artwork or didgeridoos or boomerangs and want to sell products like that, particularly in some of the really remote areas we have up here.’
Trevor explains that it’s not just the remote areas that are suffering. Border closers, both state and international, have taken a huge toll.
‘I drove a client up for treatment on the Gold Coast last week and I came back down through Coolangatta, and the shops down there, although there’s no COVID in Queensland, it was just sad to see so many shops that didn’t have many people in them. And it’s holiday time, I thought, they’re not in lockdown, what’s going on? Queensland tourism depends on people from other states, and what I saw there I thought, gee that was sad.’
Supporting Communities While Keeping Them Safe
While many people are excited to travel once restrictions end and might want to support outback towns, there are a few things you need to do to ensure the safety of others before setting off.
‘As a small Aboriginal community, I would like to see that before it opens up widely, everyone that comes to our community and has any contact with our people is vaccinated. There should be a vaccine passport for visitors to get into our communities,’ Trevor tells me.
‘I would also like all of our people to understand how dangerous this virus can be to our communities before they start to travel. Once people are double vaccinated they should come out to support rural areas. But be mindful, do some research, and check with the community what percentage of the Aboriginal population in the area they are visiting have been vaccinated.’
Living with the virus in the community is a new concept for much of Australia. Everyone will have to continue to be cautious about travelling if they have symptoms as it’ll be a real risk that someone could carry and can transmit the virus, even if they’re double vaccinated.
‘If you have symptoms, even if you have been vaccinated, stay away from community,’ Trevor said.
‘If you are sick and want to support communities without putting them at risk, a lot of people have their artwork and what have you online now. And if you aren’t sure where to look for it, contact the local land council or housing cooperative and ask where you can purchase items online.’
Rural Travel From a Tourism Perspective
As well as thinking about these issues from a health perspective, I wanted to find out what the local businesses and tourism companies had to say. NSW Aboriginal Tourism Operators Council (NATOC) is a tourism organisation aimed at helping small businesses grow and develop. Craig Layer, CEO of NATOC, had this to say:
‘The timing and readiness to open back up is a hard one because every community is different and has different needs. Some of our communities are quite small and vulnerable because of our elders and health issues. We will be taking a cautious view in the early stages of restrictions being rolled back. The welfare of communities is far more important than whether we have visitors or not. We would love to be able to promote our products and our various tourism options, but to us, the welfare of community must come first.’
Call Ahead, Don’t Just Turn Up
Like most activities in a post-lockdown world, travel will now require a bit more organisation. As well as having your proof of vaccination and your app to check in for contact tracing, you should be prepared to call ahead and check which areas are willing to accept visitors before you leave.
‘The best thing to do for prospective visitors is to enquire first,’ says Craig. ‘Call the local land council or tourism operator you want to visit and ask them. At this stage, don’t just turn up and expect to be able to do something because you might not get the reception you want.’
This is true not just for Aboriginal communities, but all areas outside of Sydney that haven’t been living with the virus in the community. Tourism business owners, shop owners, and their staff are all nervous to see how the relaxing of restrictions will affect them.
‘I live in the Hunter Valley, which relies very heavily on tourism and a lot of the guys here are still quite nervous about what’s the right thing to do,’ explains Craig.
‘They need the visitors, but no one is sure what’s going to happen once people do start to come back from Sydney. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Everyone is just a bit nervous about how it is going to unfold.’
Craig also works for Ungooroo Aboriginal Council who have created an excellent online gallery of local Hunter Valley Aboriginal artists where you can view all their artwork and make purchases online.
So, should you be visiting remote communities?
If you’re thinking about taking a post-lockdown road trip out of the city, the advice from Craig and Trevor is simple:
- Get vaccinated
- Don’t travel if you’re sick or have even the mildest symptoms
- Call ahead and make sure the specific activity/tour/community you want to visit is ready to host visitors
- If you can’t travel, support remote communities and artists by buying their products or a gift voucher for a cultural experience online and save it for when they’re ready to open
Photos thanks to Destination NSW