We started the year struggling to breathe.
As a 240-day inferno of fires burnt across five states, dust storms and severe smoke hazed the cities, affecting 80% of Australia’s 25 million people. Face masks were sold out in every store. Australia is known for our clean air but the bushfire smoke haze caused a widespread health emergency and we were told to close our windows and shut our doors to stay safe. But smoke was still getting in the buildings. For months, the population breathed in air pollution up to 26 times levels considered hazardous to human health. Many could not breathe. 2020 started quietly, in almost silence. It was a time of surviving and mourning. Over 18 million hectares burnt, two years’ worth of CO2 was released into the atmosphere, thirty-three people lost their lives, more than one billion native animals and plant deaths, and 5900 buildings were destroyed including over 2800 homes.
Australia is home to over 500 unique Indigenous nations. Our diverse First Nations communities fought fires on their sacred lands. Ash polluted rivers. Singed koalas screamed for help. Already vulnerable species were brought to the brink of extinction. Immeasurable sacred sites were destroyed. For First Nations people, like the Yuin Nation, this destruction of Country was a personal and familial blow. Yuin man Warren Foster from Wallaga Lake said, ‘We need our country to be healthy so we can be healthy. We need the animals. If that is all lost, our spirits die when they die. This might be a wake-up call for them now to listen to us Indigenous people on how we do our cultural burning.’
The government had not paid attention to the warnings. Reports came out that fire chiefs were effectively gagged from mentioning the effect of climate change on bushfire risks. They said that they self-censored their speech in fear of losing their jobs.
The combination of drought, fuel and wrong vegetation created a ticking time bomb. Indigenous fire management, based on a deep understanding of the land, plants, animals and weather systems, is an ancient technology and could have been utilised to prevent the fires. Through interpreting signs in the landscape and talking to the spirits, First Nations practitioners burn the country slowly, so the animals can escape. They burn coolly, so the fire only reaches the vegetation it needs to, cleaning up country, providing food security, supporting waterways. Cultural burning is in sync with the seasons and breeding times of animals. Indigenous people have been crying out for more autonomy over the land they know well.
When a new threat came to Australia in early 2020, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, many First Nations people took it to be a sign from the ancestors. The meme ‘kinda feeling like the earth just sent us all to our rooms to think about what we’ve done’ became popular on ‘blak’ social media. (Coined by artist Destiny Deacon in the early 1990s, ‘blak’ is a self-defining term used by Australian First Nations people, particularly urban-identifying.)
This meme has particular importance for us because we need to continue to remember the pressing climate change crisis during COVID-19. One billion animals don’t just die without retribution. People and place’s wellbeing are connected. A healthy planet means fewer diseases. The message from the ancestors is as follows: we were doing things wrong and a lockdown could provide some food for thought on what we could do next. Perhaps we could imagine and build a new world order that was democratic to all the people and put the environment first.
On the 25th January, the first case of a SARS-CoV-2 infection was reported in Australia, a Chinese citizen who arrived from Guangzhou on the 19th January. The patient was tested and received treatment in Melbourne. On the same day, three other patients tested positive in Sydney after returning from Wuhan. All up, nine cases were recorded in January in Australia.
The WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on the 30th January. From the 31st January, foreign nationals returning from China were required to have spent a fortnight in a third country before being allowed into Australia.
Since the start of the outbreak, heightened prejudice, xenophobia, and racism have been documented around the world toward people of Chinese and East Asian descent. Incidents of anti-Asian racism in Australia increased and I checked in with my Asian-Australian friends who were becoming increasingly the targets of racial abuse. Racist incidents occurred on public streets, in supermarkets and shopping centres and on public transport. Incidents also occurred in schools, universities, workplaces and other spaces. A doctor friend told me a patient at the hospital refused to see her and other staff of Asian heritage. I was appalled by this. It was convenient for white Australians to be mistrustful of people from China where in fact, more infections came to Australia via people arriving from the countries of Spain, Italy, Iran, the United States and the United Kingdom. The majority of cases of COVID-19 in Australia are to date, overseas acquired.
COVID-19 warnings were developed in many different languages such as Arabic and Mandarin, and some Indigenous languages, to make sure the messaging is getting across to migrant and First Nations communities. Many communities created their own resources for their communities to be able to survive the crisis.
In 1918-1919, the Spanish Flu particularly devastated First Nations people more than any other demographic in Australia. In the Cherbourg community four hundred kilometres north of where I live, unmarked mass graves have only recently been discovered. One hundred years ago, the government had full control of every aspect of Indigenous lives. Autonomy will remain key to our survival in this current crisis. We can’t forget the past as it influences our present, and we are hungry for a hopeful future.
On the 1 March, Australia reported the first death from COVID-19: one of the passengers from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that arrived in Darwin with twenty-four infected. On the 2 March, Australia’s first community transmission is believed to have been recorded. The WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March.
On the 13th March, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton became the first Australian minister to be diagnosed with COVID-19 after arriving in Brisbane from the United States. Prison abolishment and First Nations rights activists Deb Kilroy and Boneta-Marie Mabo were on the same plane as Dutton and believe they were exposed on that flight, as they themselves tested positive arriving in Australia. Boneta-Marie Mabo is the granddaughter of legendary Indigenous land rights campaigner, Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo, whose community comes from the Torres Strait Islands at the north of Australia. On the 3 June Australia celebrates Mabo Day, the anniversary of a 1992 court decision spearheaded by Mabo that recognised for the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a special connection to the land of their ancestors.
That week my friends and I planned to go to a fundraiser organised by Deb and Boneta-Marie to raise funds for First Nations women in prison. First Nations women are almost a third of the prison population in Australia despite being only 3% of the overall population.
I met my friends in West End, an inner west suburb of Meanjin/Brisbane that has strong historical significance and contemporary meaning for First Nations people. We met at a bar near the corner of Boundary Road and Vulture Street where the Aboriginal flag is permanently painted on the road.
We were told that the fundraiser would not be going ahead next door because of Deb and Boneta-Marie being in quarantine. For many of us, this was the first people we knew who had contracted the disease, as the infection rate was still relatively low at the time. One friend had an interaction that morning with a man who entered her shop claiming to have the virus. She had closed the shop early; there had been no business. As we gathered around the bar catching up, we began to suspect this would be our last community gathering for a while. Another friend arrived in a shocked state, clutching her neck. She had just been involved in a car accident. Both her and the other driver had been rushing to the grocery store. The daily news was awash with stories of empty aisles of non-perishable items; rice, pasta and canned foods disappeared from the shelves. Our country made international headlines with violent brawls over toilet paper. We were embarrassed of our country. We knew that there was a lot more at stake and there were other ways to clean our bottoms. Many of us had lived in generational poverty with little more than a tin of tuna to last the week. Some of us had traditional diets, surviving off the land. The pandemic woes of white Australians did not have resonance to us.
Supermarkets began introducing Elders’ Hour for shoppers over sixty and those with disabilities so they did not have to compete with the panic-buying stockpilers. State and federal governments imposed restrictions and urged Australians to stay at home. The National Farmers’ Federation told consumers not to ‘panic’ as there was ‘plenty of food to go around’. The Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, declared that Australia has ‘the most secure food security in the world’.
Not secure for some. This statement omitted the inflated price of food in remote Indigenous communities, and the lack of food sovereignty or access to clean drinking water. Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy than the non-Indigenous Australian population, particularly those living in remote areas, and along with overcrowded housing makes them one of the communities most vulnerable to the virus. Our Elders in the community are living libraries, as they hold knowledge vital for the next generation. Communities shut down to visitors and border restrictions were introduced. My friends, two sisters, who belonged to the community of Minjerribah, took a ferry to the island the next day, so they could be with their parents.
A call to evacuate Elders from the remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara communities in South Australia to Adelaide was not put into operation. The Northern Territory developed a remote health pandemic plan, with NT Health setting up a number of remote clinics across the Territory. All non-essential travel to the 76 remote communities was banned, and in May, health officials suggested that this should stay in place for the foreseeable future.
On the banks of the Darling River in New South Wales, a group of Barkindji families set up a tent town, to escape overcrowded accommodation. They believed they would be safer from the threats of the disease in tents along the river than in housing in town.
On the 19th March despite advice to take relevant precautions, the cruise ship Ruby Princess freely discharged 2700 passengers without quarantine in Sydney Harbour. The passengers spread the virus all over Australia. This single cruise ship will be linked to over 10% of infections and almost a quarter of all deaths.
Some of my First Nations colleagues were quick to point out the irony of ships being allowed into the country carrying an infectious disease in 2020, at the same time as a tax-funded re-enactment of the 250th anniversary of the landing of Cook’s Endeavour was due to occur. Criticisms of the proposed celebrations, including a festival in Cooktown, were that the anniversary symbolised theft and murder for First Nations peoples, and that the anniversary was heavily skewed to the perspective of the ships, not the people on the shore and their descendants today.
The health gap in our nation was made apparent on the 29th March when the Prime Minister urged Australians over 70 and Indigenous Australians over 50 to stay at home. My mother, sixty-seven, was stuck between feelings of caution and defiance. Why should she have more restrictions placed on her because of her race?
By that time, we were were staying at home, except for frontline workers. Mum and I have never felt luckier to have bushland behind us. We go on walks sometimes, but the birds also visit us in our back garden. Sulphur-crested cockatoos, kookaburras and crows. When I see birds flying overhead I think of flocking. A group moving in the same direction but keeping their distance. Physically distancing from each other but remaining unified. The sky is a lot clearer thanks to an easing of pollution. We see more stars in the night sky. With gyms and playgrounds closed, we notice more walkers in the national park. Just before nightfall we see keen photographers trying to capture the elusive barking owls. Kangaroos were out in force in the mornings and the late afternoons, encroaching into urban areas.
I am told green shoots have appeared in the areas badly burnt from the summer’s bushfires.
The expensive air filtration masks I bought my family to handle the smoke for the fires are transferable to this crisis. We wear them when we go to the supermarket or post office or have to use the train. My mum sews cotton masks for family members and friends.
I keep in touch with my friends and colleagues through online catch-ups. A particularly favourite is a weekly roundtable hosted by the Australia Council of the Arts for First Nations artists and arts workers. We laugh and cry together; for many of us, this is the highlight of our week. We hear uplifting stories of our kinspeople embracing bush food, hunting, fishing, gardening and weaving. We talk about how we could get out of this crisis on the other side in a stronger place, where we have data sovereignty and ownership of our land and cultural practice.
We hear sad realities about our young people suiciding; the pandemic is creating a mental health pandemic hitting those who are most vulnerable. We brainstorm ways to help our young people make sense of this crisis. We urge ourselves to be cautious of disaster capitalism, where conservative governments use the crisis’s emotional and physical distraction to sneakily greenlight controversial coal mines and other threats to Country.
On Sunday the 24th May, one of the world’s oldest sacred sites was destroyed by mining blasts. The mining company Rio Tinto was granted legal permission to blast the more than 46,000-year-old site belonging to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Traditional Owners. The Traditional Owners are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of the rock shelters and they are frustrated by the inflexibility of the law. Viewed as out-of-date, inefficient and ineffective, Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act is currently under review, though the review process has been halted due to COVID-19, as have reforms relating to climate change.
The infection peak in Australia was the end of March. By early May, restrictions started to ease, but state borders and remote communities are still closed. Some states now report no new infections. We are cautiously easing into another phase of this fast-developing situation; keeping our face masks on.
Australia is currently looking at the long term effects of the bushfires on both the land and people’s health in the form of a royal commission. I have many thoughts when I think about the recent fires, the recent floods, global warming, species devastation and ongoing displacement of people off their traditional lands. I think about the rare macadamia trees that were destroyed in the fires in Queensland. My people, the Yugambeh people, are from Queensland. Macadamia trees are one of my community’s totems, and their nuts are an important food source. I was devastated to learn of the loss of the trees. Experts report the smoke that many Australians inhaled contained particles that can enter the bloodstream and affect every system in the body, causing many additional health issues. We don’t know enough yet, like we don’t know enough about COVID-19. Psychological stress was reported as being a lasting effect, and we are expecting that especially the children will face post-traumatic stress for decades to come.
Climate change is the greatest health challenge we face, and most days I wake up feeling anxious and overwhelmed. I try to stay hopeful. I rely on the strength of my family and friends who tell me we have faced challenges in the past and we have overcome them. We belong to Country. Country doesn’t belong to us. I speak to the ancestors. One of my Aunties comes to me in the form of the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Aunty Kerry tells me to keep fighting and hold my head up high. And I will, to honour her.
Indigenous communities in Australia have been lauded as being highly successful in the prevention of COVID-19 entering into their communities. Many non-Indigenous communities want to ‘learn’ how Indigenous communities and migrant communities practise resilience so they can apply it to their communities. I am highly sceptical of the rhetoric. My mother and I talk about the term resilience as being very similar to “re-silence”. A repetition of a harmful history. Indigenous communities still remain highly vulnerable to potential future waves of this disease. Secondly, many of our communities have sub-standard living conditions that should make all Australians ashamed. Thirdly, we should not have to continue being ‘resilient’. We should not have to continue to fight for the health of the land, waterways, our culture and our family. It is the systems themselves that should change.
This is the fourth of five Coronavirus reportage texts (one per continent, symbolically) commissioned by the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice to prominent international writers. The first of the series: Lives upside down written by Stanley Gazemba; the second: Lockdown in the Free Republic of Pigneto, written by Igiaba Scego; the third: Split Screen Life, written by Eli Gottlieb.