The Torres Cape Indigenous Council Alliance (TCICA) yesterday discussed a regional response to the threat of COVID-19 on communities across Cape York and the Torres Strait.
Local governing authorities that make up the alliance agreed that decisive action needs to be taken now to help protect vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from coronavirus. With chronic disease and poor health outcomes leading to more than a 20-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous peoples and the non-Indigenous population in parts of the region, it is critical that every attempt is made to ensure coronavirus stays out of communities.
Councils including Aurukun Shire Council, Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council, Mornington Shire Council, Napranum Aboriginal Shire Council, Pormpuraaw Aboriginal Shire Council, Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council, Torres Shire Council and Torres Strait Island Regional Council have already taken steps to immediately restrict non-essential travel to and from communities. In addition, the Torres Strait Island Regional Council has banned all traditional travel and trade between Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait usually allowable under the Torres Strait Treaty.
Other local governments across the region are expected to implement similar measures over the coming days to protect their communities. It is likely that travel to all discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will soon be limited to those people involved in the provision of essential or urgent services in the community, such as health workers, police, teachers, defence and emergency services personnel, critical infrastructure service workers and food security. Uninvited visitors and tourists will not be permitted to enter communities. Mayors are actively engaged throughout this process with their Local Disaster Management Groups to identify the best options and are working closely with Queensland Health, as the State’s lead agency for consistent whole-of-government coronavirus messaging and response.
Local people travelling out of communities need to be aware of the risk of not being permitted back into community, depending on the most current advice from Queensland Health. Those who have been diagnosed with coronavirus, have had close contact with someone who is unwell, or have travelled overseas in the last 14 days or had close contact with someone who has, will be required to self-isolate for two weeks before returning to community.
Government agencies are being asked to ensure they have business continuity plans in place so that services can still be delivered without risking the health and wellbeing of local people. This means that agencies like Education Queensland will need to implement innovative solutions to maintain the delivery of education in communities while managing the risk of teachers returning to communities after school holidays and potentially bringing coronavirus into the region. Non-essential government activity should also move away from in-community meetings, events and activities and use teleconferencing or videoconferencing wherever possible.
Importantly, the Electoral Commission of Queensland must take steps now to ensure that election workers flying into communities in the coming fortnight are not bringing coronavirus with them.
Councils are asking the State and Federal Governments to apply flexibility around the completion of government-funded projects until workforces return to normal. Provisions in infrastructure and civil construction delivery contracts will also need to be reviewed to ensure penalties are not unfairly imposed.
Councils are working closely with key travel service providers including Skytrans and REX Airlines to help manage the flow of people in and out of communities, particularly those who might be carriers of coronavirus. It is expected that reductions in demand for travel will impact significantly on these airlines and that is why the Federal Government must ensure its aviation support package meets the needs of regional airlines.
TCICA understands the impact travel restrictions to the tip of Cape York will have on the region’s drive tourism industry, however it is the lives of vulnerable Indigenous Australians that are at stake. Both the State and Federal Governments are offering business support packages to affected businesses to help minimise losses until travel can return to normal. In the meantime, Councils are encouraging local people and the State and Federal Governments to invest in local businesses to support micro-economies in communities and across the region.
TCICA will continue to meet weekly to discuss the coronavirus crisis and collectively identify ways to minimise its impact on our communities.
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