There are more than 14,000 kilometers between Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and the Navajo Nation in the United States desert, but the regions have much more in common than red sand.
Indigenous peoples in North America share many cultural and family values with the First Peoples of Australia and suffer similarly poor health outcomes from colonisation, a connection that has brought the two groups together for generations.
Now, one of the places in the US hit hardest by COVID-19 is playing an important role in helping combat vaccine hesitancy amongst First Nations folks in remote Australia.
“The [Northern Territory has] had no direct experience of the devastation this virus causes. We’ve only had images from elsewhere,” said Dr John Boffa, chief medical officer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.
“Indigenous peoples in the US have the highest rate of vaccine acceptance [among all Americans], they say, because of communitarian spirit,” Boffa said. “They want to protect their old people, their spiritual leaders.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 55 are among the 4 million Australians expected to get the AstraZeneca jab in March. The so-called phase 1-B of the rollout will also include the medically vulnerable, those over 70, other healthcare workers and emergency service workers.
Indigenous Australians are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the prevalence of underlying health issues such as diabetes, rheumatic heart disease and kidney disease ― a burden they’ve been forced to bear since colonisation. Crowded living conditions can also increase risks.
This time last year Indigenous people over 50 were advised to stay home “to the maximum extent practical” and rural communities were locked down completely.
At the start of the pandemic, many Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) didn’t have enough PPE and there were fears a COVID-19 outbreak would rob Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not only of their lives, but of their elders, language and cultural practices too.
The biggest challenge ahead, according to Boffa, is convincing First Nations people it’s safe and still important to get inoculated. His team is planning a Zoom call with Navajo leaders so that local elders and community members can hear about the Americans’ experience with the jab.
“Over the years, people have gone over there and we’ve had people from the Navajo come here ― people know that mob,” he said.
The Navajo Nation ― the largest Indigenous nation in the United States, spanning roughly 69,929 square kilometers across portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah ― suffered a surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths late last year. Their death toll is currently at 1,187.
“More than 50% of Navajo people are now vaccinated. That’s about 80,000 people out of 150,000 people,” Boffa said, adding that young Navajos saw the devastation among their elders.
“They saw them die, they were the ones devastated, they’ve lost their language speakers and their cultural leaders. They know everyone has to be vaccinated to protect the old people.”
Since vaccinations started at Christmas time, the Navajo Nation’s daily case numbers have been on a downward trend, America’s ABC News reports.
“That’ll be useful to show that the vaccine is safe, it’s an important move,” Boffa said.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress is using the Navajos’ success story in its social media campaign to convince Northern Territory communities that the vaccine is safe. “The immunisation has not caused any issues [for the Navajo Nation] and the hospitalisation rate is dropping dramatically,” Boffa said.
In addition to general hesitancy, medical officials must overcome concerns about how Indigenous people with underlying health conditions will react to the jab.
Dawn Casey, deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said each Aboriginal-controlled health service will have its own communication campaign to address these concerns.
“The ACCHOs are good at communicating these issues on the ground in their own way and their own language,” she said.
“Some elders are concerned ... there is a lot of commentary from anti-vaxxers and others on social media,” Casey added.
But hard work, border closures, “major hotel quarantine lessons” and “hardships” have all helped to avoid massive outbreaks in First Nations communities, Boffa said.
“[Delivery of the] vaccine, in a way, is the easy part,” he said.