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HomeIssue 28Waiting for Covid's Moment of Truth

Waiting for Covid’s Moment of Truth

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The Covid Moment of Truth in the NT, it could be said, is a heavily infected man or a woman moving around, unknown and uncontrolled, making lots of contacts, spreading illness and possibly death. It’s our worst nightmare.

“That it’s going to happen is the consensus even from the health professionals,” says Bill Yan, Shadow Health Minister (pictured).

“It’s going to get into the Territory at some stage. It’s more a matter of when.”

That would bring crashing down the Territory’s current exemption from the pandemic misery that exists almost everywhere else in the world: End of the Territory paradise.

This would doubtlessly mean a sharpening of control measures and raise the question: Can we handle it?

While we’re now merely encouraging jabs, a mandatory approach to vaccination would be introduced.

And robust social distancing, something we’re not losing too much sleep about, would need to keep communities apart over our immense landmass, separating those who are vaxxed, and those who are not.

It would also be the end of a good dose of smugness: How long will we keep going the shame job of delivering to people’s doorsteps whole vaccination teams, repeatedly, in the most remote locations, at huge cost, only to be sent away, while elsewhere in the world three billion people have no chance of getting a jab at all?

An outbreak would require a civil, police and military operation of a scale never before seen in this region, an operation about which the public has every right to be informed.

Yet much of the government’s operation is secret, questions are not answered.

The Alice Springs News put the following question to the police on August 10: “If an outbreak occurs in a place such as Yuendumu, what are the step-by-step measures that will be taken by the police to contain the outbreak and to ensure vital goods and services – especially health care – are continuing to be available to the population.”

We’re still waiting for an answer.

We requested an interview with Health Minister Natasha Fyles yesterday. She declined, but today we’re speaking with Mr Yan.

The bottom line with the CLP – as with the Government – is the practically unconditional dependence on the Chief Medical Officer (CHO) Hugh Heggie and the NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker (pictured).

There is no hint of a suggestion that their respective professional skills are in any way deficient.

But it is astonishing to what extent the two men are regarded as the best advice on issues well outside their immediate competence.

Mr Yan says Dr Heggie nominated the types of people who must have double vaccination, because of their professions and kind of work.

What about the general public?

“The CHO hasn’t come out yet to say that would be the next stage.”

This, surely, would be a political, not a medical decision.

In its policy formulation the CLP is inclined to “take the advice of the field commanders” – Heggie and Chalker.

“We have to take the advice from the professionals on the ground who are best placed [to decide] and provide advice to us.”

It seems to be taken as a fact these are always going to be Heggie and Chalker, in consultation with their interstate and national contemporaries.

“I ask myself this question, here is a non elected person with more power than the Chief Minister,” says Mr Yan.

“It’s a question about democracy. Good oversight by the government is what’s required over the decisions that are being made.”

How is the oversight carried out?

The Government doesn’t give adequate briefings despite demands from the Opposition. It and the Independents are kept in the dark.

The Chief Minister’s recent road map, sketched by the CHO, was little more than “announcing a plan to go away and do the planning,” says Mr Yan.

Does the Opposition look outside the tent to academia, private enterprise and industry, for example, to test decisions made by the CHO?

“We take our advice from the Chief Health Officer.” And here the cycle neatly closes.

A leading NGO figure in The Centre, Blair McFarland, working for CAYLUS, says there is no shortage of personnel to take care of the details, but the main decisions need to be made by the government.

This includes dealing with “the patchy vax situation”.

Says Mr McFarland: “CAYLUS has been linking with other NGOs and NTG agencies to support the vaccination roll out.

“We have never seen such a concerted effort by so many different agencies to get the message out and support vaccination.

“Last year, with the threat of COVID, we saw Alice empty out as people went to homelands to wait it out, with some boundary enforcement by the police.

“At that stage, it was more feasible to live remote as the COVID extra payment was being made, so people could afford to live in remote communities where an average basket of groceries costs 50% more than in Alice,” says Mr McFarland.

“If this financial support is not provided, people will be continuing to feel pressure to visit Alice in order to make their money go further towards feeding their families.

“It is interesting to note that crime went down by 50% during that period across the NT according to NT Police stats (see below).

Meanwhile a non-Aboriginal resident of a major community for several decades, who did not want to be named, says the Vaccinate! message is being delivered in a rather patronising manner.

“Many people in these communities are sick of being told what to do. This probably contributes to hesitancy or at least slows down the uptake.

“Years of government deceit and lies doesn’t help either. Misinformation also plays a role.

“I don’t know the actual figures but suspect the vaccinated percentage is less than what it should be.

“As people are reassured by the continued health of people who did get vaccinated, I believe there is a gradual take-up, but slower than would satisfy me.

“If there is an outbreak in a community I don’t see the authorities changing their behaviour.

“They already have virtual total control so they won’t hesitate from shutting us in, and there will still be people sneaking past their roadblocks (as happened earlier in the pandemic).

“This behaviour is not confined to Indigenous people, but they will get the lion’s share of blame.

“Meanwhile I will keep crossing the fingers and knocking on wood.”

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