To understand vaccine hesitation in First Nations communities, we need to go to the people themselves and find out the real reason why the problem exists. Richard Trudgen, founder of Why Warriors and a long time community educator with Yolngu people in north-east Arnhem Land, is concerned. In discussions with many Yolngu health workers and clan leaders, he reports that their stories around Covid-19 are completely different to what is told in mainstream media. “Yolngu health workers and family leaders are confused and frightened,” Richard says.
“Wamut, [Richard Trudgen’s skin name] is the government using us in some sort of experiment?” a senior Yolngu community leader asked him recently, “What do you call it, like guinea pigs?”
A major problem is that First Nations communities are not understanding the mainstream news – either international or national – because it’s all in English, which is a fifth or sixth language for many. Some Yolngu people know there is something wrong in Sydney and Melbourne, but they do not understand the context, so it’s very confusing. There are too many missing gaps in the information they have access to in their own language. So they haven’t got a clear picture about the pandemic.
“It’s just one great big mess for us,” a Yolngu health worker told Richard last week. “We want help to sort out what is the yuwalk [true] and waliwaliŋu [not based on real evidence] information. We are tired of English first language people coming in just forcing us, forcing us. The whole community is now resisting anything to do with Covid-19.”
Current government messaging is more in context with the broader mainstream view than it is with First Nations people’s understanding of disease and sickness. The government’s short scripted messages are translated into local languages by many First Nations people who are not health literate and who often do not understand the English terminology used. So when a problematic English word is encountered, the English word is used, rather than the word being properly explained or unpacked.
“Our people are now openly resisting anything to do with Covid-19 because there is so much confusion around it. Lots of silly stories. We need our questions answered clearly in our language,” another Yolngu health worker told Richard.
The questions that people in remote communities have, are very different from the mainstream information needs, because they are coming from a different perspective. The short scripted messaging, on top of people’s questions not being answered, leaves them in a very confused state. Confusion creates an environment where conspiracy theorists and anti-vax marketeers are having a field day.
“There’s all sorts of really weird, irrational logic associated with the [Covid-19] vaccination. That is not the truth,” confirms Dr Aleeta Fejo, who is a senior GP working in Galiwin’ku, and struggling to convince First Nations community members there to become vaccinated.
“Yolngu health workers and community leaders want a different approach,” says Richard. “Most First Nations people start from a position where they are suspicious of the government. Any messaging or strategies that resemble the past disastrous welfare period of history makes people more wary. We need to work from where the people are at, working through the right traditional political family structures within each community. Starting with health workers is not the traditional political structure. In fact, it makes health workers vulnerable and open to internal social abuse. We should work with the traditional family leaders first. Then they will support the health workers in their critical work.”
Many Yolngu health workers that Richard has spoken to, agree with him. “We need somebody to come and work with our traditional family leaders. We are too young, and we can’t tell our elders about these things.”
Eighteen months ago, the Why Warriors team, made up of Yolngu researchers and co-producers, realised people would need real answers to their questions around the crisis if they were going to be well-informed. A member of that team, the Rev. Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra OAM is a senior Yolngu clan and community leader, along with other lifelong translators and interpreters such as Maratja Dhamarrandji, chief bible translator for the Uniting Church. This team has been producing primary health resources ever since Djiniyini and Richard built Yolngu Radio back in the early 2000s. Last year, with the help of Dr Kerry Mills, a microbiologist from the University of Canberra, they started working on a series of videos that answers people’s questions about Covid-19, without government support. These 30 videos work from where the people are at. They also provide health history and health literacy information that people in remote communities need, in order to catch up to mainstream conversations around Covid-19.
“Most mainstream Australians understand the cause and effect of disease and sickness. Whereas most Yolngu and many other First Nations people still believe that disease and sickness come from spirits, sick-country, or some illegal sorcery. So the messaging needs to be very different,” says Richard.
The video series can be used for the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land as an information tool, viewed via YouTube or Djambatjmarram, the growing online learning platform in Yolngu Matha language, started by Why Warriors in 2018. However, face-to-face (adult) education needs to occur at the same time as these resources rolling out – screening them whilst working together with family groups – to get broad community support. “Once that is achieved, conspiracy theories and anti-vax messages will be dismissed,” Richard believes.
This is the same message that migrant groups across Australia have been asking for since the pandemic began. The mainstream Australian community required special information to move past fears about blood clots with the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is no different; people need access to good information that answers their questions and works from their worldview in order to have a genuinely informed understanding of Covid-19.
Working with citizens in a culturally competent, culturally safe way is the only way to bring everybody on board, not just for the current vaccine rollout, but also for follow-up interventions in the years to come. Information is power, but you can only get information when it is in a language you understand.
For further information contact Why Warriors office: 08 8987 1664, or Richard Trudgen directly on 0400 880 954 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why Warriors’ Founder and Director, Richard Trudgen, is a community educator and author who has lived and worked with Yolŋu people in Arnhem Land for 40 years, learning their language and customs. Richard authored the seminal book, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, and works passionately and tirelessly together with his local Yolŋu community to increase mutual understanding and respect between Balanda and Yolŋu.