Fundamental Covid-19 education principles that work in Australian First Nations communities

In March 2020 Why Warriors started producing 32 podcasts and 30 videos in the Yolngu Matha language. We knew that Yolngu people would want answers to their questions about the Covid-19 virus. Without these answers, it would leave them confused and vulnerable to conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and the virus itself.

With the help of ALPA and ARDS, we were able to test out these resources on the ground in face-to-face community education, together with another secret weapon: the microscope.

The combined education method was very effective in Galiwin’ku. Entire clan groups that were once refusing the vaccine changed their minds after watching the videos and participating in face-to-face sessions.  Both Yolngu and Balanda health workers reported that they now have community support.

Two important things we want to share from this experience:
1. Key principles used in the face to face education program.
2. Information about the secret weapon that was life-changing for people.

Key principles of face to face education

  1. Treat people with integrity and respect.
  2. Start from where people are at.
  3. Answer their question/s in a way that builds on their pre-existing knowledge.
  4. Allow people to fully investigate subjects to their satisfaction.
  5. Do not force people to make decisions (on vaccinations or other issues).
  6. Leave people with enough knowledge to make informed decisions around their own health.

 

1. Treat people with integrity and respect

Have faith in people’s intellectual ability, treating them with real respect. When working together with Yolngu people, it is vital to resist the common “mainstream” Australian approach, i.e. treating them as requiring only simple information and answers. Culturally competent and culturally safe education for traditional Aboriginal people demands that dhuḏi-dhäwu evidential information of the full story around the subject is provided to the extent of their curiosity.

Whilst involved in face-to-face education over the past two months, many Balanda (English first language people) have said to our team, “You need to be careful showing Yolngu some of this material – it will frighten them!” The notion that information needs to be simple and childlike simply produces paternalistic-driven curricula that will not give good results. In fact, it will switch most Aboriginal people off. Many will just walk away from the intellectually insulting education process and then they will be accused of not being interested in the information.

A lot of the simple translated top-down education material has been produced over the past year around Covid-19. Unfortunately, it does not answer Yolngu people’s real questions. Thus it lacks integrity, leaving them to conclude that there is some form of cover-up going on.

For example, when talking about the Covid-19 vaccines, mainstream resources stated, “it’s safe!” rather than explaining that the vaccines can make some people sick.

Many Yolngu reported that community members who had the first vaccine got sick. Yolngu live in a village, and bad news spreads like wildfire, so the simple message that “it’s safe” was seen as a lie or a cover-up, questioning all subsequent government messaging.

This fed straight into the conspiracy theories that “The government is trying to trick people into getting vaccinated, to have some form of future control over them.”

We produced a video called “what is in the vaccine” to explain why some people get sick. It also explains how this sickness is usually only short-lived and is nothing compared to the life-threatening illness of Covid-19. Yolngu people need the full story before their fears are alleviated.

A major problem with our video series however, was getting it out to Yolngu people who have little to no access to media sources. So we put them up on our Yolngu online learning platform, djambatjmarram.com.au, launched a Yolngu Matha Youtube channel and handed out over 40 USBs with the video series on them for people to play on their personal TVs.

 

2. Start from where people are at

People need information in the language they think in (Yolngu Matha), building on their pre-existing knowledge and through their own worldview. They also need to have some control over education sessions.

So at the beginning of each education session, we ask Yolngu attendees if they have any questions about Covid-19. Starting the conversation from where they’re at allows them to participate more fully in the dialogue that follows. Rather than being forced to hear a controlled, culturally incompetent and culturally unsafe conversation that is often driven by a predetermined script, starting from where the educator thinks it should.

Predetermined scripts are like a set of railroad tracks that drive the people straight into a brick wall, instead of taking them into open dialogue and an exercise of inspiring learning. If people are not in control of the conversation, they cannot determine the direction and depth of the dialogue needed to satisfy their curiosity.

Therefore, all of our education sessions start from different places, depending on the needs of that particular group. For example, some groups focused on the origins of Covid-19. In contrast, a group of young guys at ALPA CDP (Community Development Program) were much more interested in “what is in the vaccines?”.

If people don’t offer a question, due to shyness or for some other reason, we start with one of the videos showing them where the virus came from in China. If the group is still resistant, we start by getting them involved in microscope literacy and germ theory with a microscope (see more on this in “The secret weapon to solve Covid-19 hesitation” section below).

We then move on to watch small parts of other videos to answer participant’s questions as they come up. The whole process is dialogue-driven.

 

3. Answer their question/s in a way that builds on their pre-existing knowledge

Yolngu people know a lot about living creatures in their living environment; they have a greater biological and zoological knowledge than most mainstream speaking Australians. This provides educators with a lot of useful knowledge to build on.  Answering questions about Covid-19 needs to be built on this existing knowledge.

In fact, any educator working with Yolngu or other First Nations groups should initially learn from the people themselves. Until educators understand the pre-existing knowledge of the people they are working with, scaffolding education can’t occur. No matter how qualified the educator might be.

For example, in this podcast we discuss body cells as being like turtle eggs, where the body cells have an outer skin and another thin membrane layer that covers the inside part. This part, like the yolk in a turtle egg, is called the nucleus. When the virus enters a body cell, it goes into the nucleus and uses the nucleus to instruct the cell to make more viruses. Information provided down to a biological level and in relation to animals they already know allows Yolngu to form a clear picture in their minds of how viruses operate. This then also becomes knowledge that they will not forget and can build further upon.

In terms of two-way learning, in this video we discuss what social distancing means, and subsequently learn that there are two similar processes in Yolngu culture. One is avoidance relationships, i.e. avoiding certain people within their kinship structure.

The other is an intricate concept called goŋ-wukundi. Under Yolngu (Madayin) law, the group of people looking after a deceased person become goŋ-wukundi. Their hands are painted with ochre to distinguish them from others. People outside this group are not allowed to be near them, touch them, or touch any of the articles they’ve used. By comparing this to the government’s request to ‘socially distance’ from others during the Pandemic, Yolngu suddenly have a much clearer idea of what is required.

Using the people’s prior knowledge, with information delivered in their language and worldview, creates effective, sustainable and empowered learning.

 

4. Allow people to fully investigate subjects to their satisfaction

Allowing Yolngu to fully investigate a subject until their curiosity is totally satisfied means the conversation needs to be dialectic – where educators can also learn things as they participate in an active two-way conversation.

If the education program is successful, it should positively impact many other health issues experienced by the community, not just around Covid-19. For example, we talked about bacteria and viruses as living things during some of our sessions and then viewed them through the microscope or on our videos. Discussion then ensued about how sickness in general, can travel from one person to another, through family groups, by sharing saliva in all sorts of different ways. Yolngu participants drew this conclusion themselves and discussed it openly around a range of other illnesses.

During our time in Galiwin’ku, our education sessions ranged from 1 to over 4 hours long, depending on participant’s curiosity.

 

5. Do not force people to make decisions (on vaccinations or other issues)

The goal of community education should be to use the conversations and resources to enable people; to investigate the subject thoroughly, become fully informed, or at least have access to information so they can make empowered decisions in the future. It is not the educator’s role to force people into a particular conclusion.

Open dialogue is destroyed if people sense you are there to direct them in one particular direction. Our community education sessions in Galiwin’ku allowed people to discover or critique all the information and resources they have seen or heard concerning Covid-19.

As one Yolngu health worker said, “We need help to sort out the dhuḏi-dhäwu, evidential information, from the waliwaliŋu, crazy, meaningless stuff people have been telling us.”

Sorting out the dhuḏi-dhäwu, evidential information, from the waliwaliŋu, crazy, meaningless stuff is only possible through bicultural, bilingual mainstream educators working together with the people. The English first language educator needs to access the evidence-based information from the mainstream English understanding of Covid-19 and then explain it to the people in their language.

This is an impossible task for most Yolngu who think in Yolngu Matha and who find many English academic words confusing and meaningless.

Many translations of English academic terms during Covid-19 simply repeat the “hard” English word without explaining the meaning behind these English words in Yolngu Matha. This creates more confusion and feeds into conspiracy theories around Covid-19.

Before we started education sessions in Galiwin’ku, the community had already experienced six weeks of an outside doctor forcing them to be vaccinated. Yolngu health workers claimed, “We were being forced, and we had no idea what the vaccines were all about.  When we went to try and get the people interested in vaccines they were running away from us and did not want anything to do with the Covid-19 issue.”

This attempt to get people vaccinated was ill-conceived, culturally incompetent and culturally unsafe, leaving Yolngu people totally exposed to conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers and the virus itself. No other north-east Arnhem Land community had the same anti-vax stance as Galiwin’ku.

Some communities achieved very high vaccination rates because of their relationship with frontline mainstream registered nurses (RN). There was a high level of trust between them, so when these trusted RNs or Doctors told people they needed to be vaccinated, they were ready to go along with them.

When we started community education at Galiwinku, we found massive resistance to getting any groups together. We had to sustain aggressive arguments over the first week we were there. It was hard work to get people to stop and listen because of inappropriate and culturally incompetent interventions that had occurred before.

This same push for vaccinating First Nations communities across the country must change. If the relationships are not there, people need access to good culturally competent information so they can make informed choices of their own accord.

This pandemic could be ongoing for a long time. We need a view over the long-term, not just getting people vaccinated once or twice. The people need to be empowered with real information to answer their questions.

Over the last week at Galiwin’ku, we were called into conversations with many Yolngu who were fully vaccinated but are fearful after hearing about needing a third. This has been complicated by the fact that the third vaccination is called a “booster”, an English word that has no meaning at all to most Yolngu. Again, anti-vaxxers are having a field day with this confusion. Never before have Yolngu had to have one, two or three vaccinations in quick succession, so conspiracy theories jump on this and play on this uncertainty and fear.  When people get a clear picture of how the vaccine works with their white blood cells (immune system) and that T lymphocyte is losing its memory around the virus, the need for further injections is understood.

 

6. Leave people with enough knowledge to make informed decisions around their own health.

Resources and face-to-face education sessions in the Yolngu Matha language have provided Yolngu people in Galiwin’ku with real answers around Covid-19. This is very different from poorly translated, simplified, incoherent, culturally incompetent information provided by administrators in far-away, socially disconnected offices.

For example, one of the government advertisements currently playing on an Aboriginal media service in north-east Arnhem Land suggests that some  people are getting the “jab” so they can “take overseas holidays in their gap year!” And to “protect their bubble!”

For Yolngu people, this English gibberish makes no sense from their own worldview – what is a “jab” or “gap year” or a “bubble” requiring protection? They view these messages as incomprehensible, with no explanation or proper translation, and therefore the government sponsoring them as incompetent. Confusion on top of confusion is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers.

Our video series was designed with and for Yolngu people in Yolngu Matha language to promote dialogue around the Covid-19 virus. With clan leaders and family heads in Galiwin’ku now having acquired answers to their questions and access to the 30 videos on the subject, vaccine rates of Yolngu will continue to rise.

This education will also have a hub-spoke effect as family members share the information with other family members in other communities across the region.

One family group was holding out against being vaccinated. They had all sorts of theological reasons as to why they shouldn’t. It was difficult to get them into a conversation, so we left them with the USB with all the 30 videos on it to watch on their TV. Their clan leader, who had been very concerned about this family being an anti-vax group within his clan, rang me later in the week and told me they had all decided to be vaccinated. The 30 videos had moved the virus from a mythical, spiritual, ‘out there somewhere’ understanding, to a clear biological context that demanded a response.

However, we know that there is still a group of people who are so confused and following these conspiracy theorists that they will not even look at videos. They will need a more specialised and concentrated education process – and one that we are happy to work on.

 

The secret weapon to solve Covid-19 hesitation

In trying to find out where Yolngu people were at, we asked: “What picture do you get when you hear doctors or nurses talking about bacteria or germs?”  Almost all Yolngu participants replied, “Yan dhäruk” – just a word. They did not see little living things, so they could not relate to what the Covid-19 virus was.  Existing as ‘just words’, the virus is out there somewhere in the mythical realm, where people felt they had no control over.

The only information stored in their memory around these words is the shape or the sound of the words themselves. They do not see bacteria or germs as tiny little “living things” that can multiply in their bodies and transmit from one person to another through their saliva or mucus droplets.

This is why so many Aboriginal people become vulnerable to conspiracy theories and anti-vax propaganda. It is also the reason why the health gap between Aboriginal Australians and mainstream Australia never closes!

English terms around Covid-19 virus also confused them. Yolngu asked what the word Covid-19 means?, or what “corona” and “second wave” and other English words meant? All of these terms just added to the confusion, and some conspiracy stories played on this. So early in the pandemic, we produced programs and videos around these difficult English phrases.

When we reveal the true meaning of these words, many Yolngu adults also ask, “so what does infection mean?”

Through previous analysis, we knew the knowledge gaps and contradictions that many Yolngu people in Galiwin’ku would have in relation to disease and sickness:

  • Many Yolngu believe that sickness is caused by magic/ sorcery, some form of spiritual intervention, sick country, or poisoning.
  • Many Yolngu have no clear understanding of the cause and effect of disease and sickness.
  • Many Yolngu feel a disconnect between themselves and the medical interventions needed to treat their conditions. Medicines and even operations are being seen as ‘magical’ in some way.

If Yolngu think about viruses differently from other living creatures, confusion sets in, and conspiracy theories can take hold because viruses are disconnected from their real world. They see somebody else as spreading or causing it, whatever it is? If bacteria, germs and viruses are inanimate, they can’t reproduce in our bodies or be transmitted from one person to another. It is someone else’s problem, and the people have no role to play in it.

Conspiracy theories are rife in remote communities around the idea that “the government or some group of people have produced the virus;

“to limit the population of the world”.

“get people to take the vaccine, with a chip in it, so the government can take control of them”.

“so you’ll turn into a zombie after a week or two.

“when the code in the vaccine gets to 666 you will die”.

“has Satan in it, so he’ll live inside you”.

Inanimate thinking destroys the cause and effect relationship of any basic, true dhuḏi-dhäwu, evidential information.

Yolngu people understand how the animals around them breed and can be helpful or harmful to human life. They also need this same information on bacteria and viruses.

Over the last two months, we have worked through bacteria, germs, and viruses as animate “living” creatures during many face-to-face education sessions. We even work on how viruses are very different to bacteria. Yolngu are very interested in all this information because it is the sort of information they expect to know about other living things in their home environment.

This has massive implications on the Covid-19 pandemic because, without this foundational knowledge, none of the strategies of social distancing, vaccines, wearing masks, or washing hands make any sense.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the government told people to wash their hands, many Yolngu washed their hands at least once a day as they saw this as some form of prayer. There was no clear cause and effect relationship to the information.

Many mainstream people claim that “Yolngu are wearing masks when we tell them to put them on”, and yes, they will comply with instructions and wear them for a while. But inanimate thinking leads to viruses being mystical. So most believe that washing hands is a form of religious activity and that masks are some form of a religious relic that can stop the effects of magic or spiritual activities. However, the prayer or the wearing of religious relics only need to be done once or twice to provide protection.

This is the same thinking Europeans had during the black plagues of Europe.

The black plagues of Europe are common knowledge for most Europeans but not for many Yolngu and most other Aboriginal people. In fact, one of the questions we received from Yolngu was, “Why are Balanda so frightened of Covid-19”?  So we produced a program on the plagues of Europe.

The people want to know the truth and have a right to know the truth. Without it, informed consent will remain a distant reality that will never be achieved.

For over 30 years, I have been advocating for health literacy programs in remote First Nations communities to teach people about germ theory in a culturally appropriate way. Unfortunately, this has not yet been achieved, mainly because most mainstream, English first language people consider everyone else in Australia to have the same worldview or knowledge they have.

 

Microscope literacy / germ theory

The following is a deeper discussion about the education with a microscope process.

During education sessions, we conduct “microscope literacy” sessions by projecting microscope images up on a projector screen[1]. This must be done in a culturally appropriate way, working from where people are at and taking into consideration that most Yolngu people in remote communities have little or no understanding of how a microscope works. (We will be happy to teach people this process)

First, we demystify the microscope, showing them how it works. Then we place our saliva on a slide and show them the bacteria and germs that exist in it.

When people see live living little creatures in the saliva, they are blown away. We then explain that our bodies, our white blood cells (immune system), are used to all these bacteria, so they won’t make us sick. But if we were to put our saliva in their mouths, they would get sick from something. That is because their immune system is not used to these strange new bacteria.

Immediately people start talking about how they are making each other sick by sharing food, cups, and other things without them being washed. The cause and effect of disease and sickness become clearer because germs are no longer seen as inanimate. They are now seen just like the animals in the bush or the fish in the sea. They are living and thus capable of being helpful or harmful. People also see that they have a role to play in managing or controlling them.

Yolngu have a strong connection and understanding of nature, particularly the animal world, knowing there are harmful and non-harmful animals in their living environment. They have less trouble dealing with this reality than most mainstream people do. In fact, this knowledge is so fundamental to them, allowing them to contextualise the conversation in real-life terms, leading to many other questions.

Many Yolngu ask, “have they got names”? They want to know about them and learn about them, just like the other living animals around them. So we talk about some of the diseases they know about, like TB, melioidosis or rheumatic heart disease. They did not know these diseases were caused by little living creatures.

We go on to explain how germs reproduce and if we are lucky, we might even see one of them reproducing on the image being projected on the screen.

Then we explain that most of those bacteria are bodinynha (peaceful, calm) and helpful to us. Only a few will be madakarritj (angry, cranky, aggressive) and can harm us, making us sick, like some poisonous creatures.

We explain how viruses are much smaller than bacteria and can multiply many times faster in our bodies. Where germs and bacteria eat food and multiply by mitosis, doubling their number about every ½ an hour, viruses do not eat food. However, they can inject their reproduction code inside our body cells and reproduce thousands of offspring, destroying our body cells as they do it.

This conversation brings people back to a clear cause and effect relationship and dispels the idea of a mystic spiritual reason out there and that Covid-19 is someone else’s responsibility. This education method places the control back in the hands of the people.

 

Finally

Yolngu deeply value their kinship system and family groups. As they became aware of how Covid-19 could be transmitted through their closest kin, many asked, “Is there any way to stop Covid 19 from getting into our family group”? We explain that the only way at the moment is to get vaccinated. This will limit the reproduction rate of the virus and, therefore, the spread of the virus. Most doctors are also saying that it will also help stop you from getting critically ill from it.

 

Hear Richard talk about the importance of community education on ABC Radio:


Richard Trudgen
Community Educator  Dec 2021

[1] Most data projectors will take an analog signal; however, computer monitors require an analog to digital converter which creates some complexities. Some new microscopes deliver a digital signal straight to the USB connection. We are currently fundraising for one of these. Please share or donate via this link if you are able to and help us keep this vital education continuing in remote areas.

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.

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