Health workers in the NT are desperate to vaccinate high-risk First Nations communities before the government opens their borders. However, efforts to date have been unsuccessful due to defective communication. Top-down government messages from the mainstream do not make sense to First Nations people with English as a second language. They need their questions answered in local language to make informed decisions around vaccines, instead of becoming targets for conspiracy theorists and anti-vax social media.
Richard Trudgen, CEO of Why Warriors and community educator in Arnhem Land for over four decades, has warned of this scenario since the pandemic began, and spent the last year and a half creating a comprehensive information channel on Youtube, translating all the information he can into Yolngu Matha. The channel, Djambatjmarram, launches this week, providing Yolngu with easy access to 30 videos, which answer — in language — the COVID-19 questions submitted to him by local Yolngu people. With this information, the government messages about COVID-19 might actually make some sense.
Richard and the Why Warriors worked with a dedicated Yolngu leadership team on the video series, including Yolngu elders, Rev. Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra OAM (chairman of Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation), and Maratja Dhamarrandji (linguist and translator), and leading microbiologist, Dr. Kerry Mills, from the University of Canberra. The current situation of vaccine terror in Arnhem Land highlights Why Warriors’ foresight.
Last week, a Yolngu health worker reported to Richard:
“We are just so confused with so many stories coming at us. I’ve had the injection, but I’m not sure what it will do to me. We need somebody like you [Richard] to help us work through what is yuwalk (true) and what is waliwaliŋu (not based on true evidence). We don’t know enough about the Balanda world (English-speaking, mainstream Australian community) to sort it out.”
Many people in remote First Nations communities are not getting the bigger picture because all the media is in English and too hard to follow. They know something is happening across Australia, but are not sure what it is.
Richard spoke to several Yolngu elders last week, and only one understood the crisis unfolding in New South Wales and Victoria. “Yolngu health workers are complaining that they were forced, under duress, to get the injection and then told to go out and get other people to come in for theirs. And we wonder why it’s not working?” he says.
“We need strategies that include people, not exclude and alienate them. When whole communities of people have questions, and they get no clear answers, it creates mass confusion and non-compliance. Add to that the conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaxxers, and you have a real mess.”
With fewer than a third of First Nations peoples in Australia now fully immunised, the government have realised vaccine supply and access are not the issues. “It’s about hesitancy, and also about dealing with some of the issues with regards to myths or views about the safety of vaccines,” confirms Health Minister Greg Hunt.
A nationwide blitz is funding culturally safe health messaging. But Richard urges that, “These messages must be delivered in conjunction with education sessions with trusted cross-cultural educators. This allows people to ask questions and investigate the subject thoroughly in a culturally competent and safe environment to get real answers, busting myths and concerns that have arisen over the pandemic. Surely this is the basic human right of every citizen?”
Richard and the Why Warriors team are calling for funding to work with Yolngu and other remote First Nations communities to help the government increase vaccine rates in these areas. By launching their Yolngu Youtube channel and providing comprehensive information in the Yolngu Matha language, Why Warriors are hoping to counter fear and misinformation and make a real difference to the vaccine uptake in remote Arnhem Land.
Without improved vaccine uptake, and in the likely event of a coronavirus outbreak there, the tiny and remote health centres in Arnhem Land will be quickly overrun by cases of COVID-19. Australia must urgently address vaccine hesitancy in Arnhem Land to prevent the pandemic blindsiding its vulnerable Yolngu population, who are already suffering low rates of life expectancy and high rates of chronic disease.
Why Warriors has a team equipped and ready to work with Yolngu or other remote Aboriginal communities to deliver effective communication; to bust the Covid 19 hesitancy by empowering the people themselves – through community education.
For more information or interviews, please contact Richard Trudgen directly on 0400 880 954, or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.