When Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton contracted Coronavirus, he got the very best of care. He is a right-wing powerbroker responsible for the regime which detains some refugees indefinitely while leaving others to navigate an uncertain life in Australia. Dutton’s experience is a far cry from that of refugees, First Nations people and immigrants.
Lives on the line. There are over 1,400 immigrants in detention. Among them are 170 seriously ill refugees who are detained permanently in crammed hotels. These refugees report that guards interact without any protective equipment or safe physical distancing.
In March, those in Melbourne’s Mantra Hotel organised in protest after a guard in Brisbane was diagnosed with Covid-19. One floor is a detention centre, where Moz (Mostafa Azimitabar) is incarcerated. The 34-year-old Iranian Kurdish singer, who suffers from a respiratory condition, spoke out about the impossibility of distancing inside the cramped facility, where most share rooms and all have to queue for meals. In a passionate speech, he exposed these conditions at the annual Walk for Justice for Refugees, which was held online during Australia’s lockdown.
Nationally, overcrowded prisons are also at boiling point. The movement fighting to stop deaths in custody is demanding the release of those at greatest risk, pointing to the woeful failures of the system to keep sick prisoners safe. Inmates, disproportionately Aboriginal, are in real danger from the pandemic. Indigenous people, while only 3 percent of the population, are 28 percent of those incarcerated. Through racial profiling, people are locked up for minor offences and refused bail. Many women in prison are survivors of family violence.
The raft of punitive measures, including hefty fines for not complying with distancing and self-isolation rules, are already being overused against people of colour, the poor and protesters. Twenty-six participants in a car cavalcade action, demanding the release of Mantra’s refugee inmates, were fined a total of $43,000 by Victoria Police. Chris Breen, from the Refugee Action Collective, was arrested and charged with incitement. His court date is 6 August. The government should drop all charges and end the use of health powers against political protest.
First Nations and migrants put last. Race and immigration status make a huge difference to the outcome from exposure to the virus. Aboriginal people die younger than the non-Indigenous population. First peoples over the age of 50 are considered vulnerable to the virus, compared to over 70 for others. Aboriginal communities remember the genocidal impact of colonisation. Pat Turner, who heads National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, bluntly warns, “If Covid-19 gets into our communities, we are gone.”
Those living in remote areas have closed their communities, fearing the virus’s devastating impact, especially upon elders who hold crucial cultural knowledge. From Arnhem Land to Cape York, First Nations have introduced strict rules for entry to their country. Indigenous rangers patrol their boundaries.
But their efforts have been undermined. In April, more than a hundred Australian Federal Police were flown into the Northern Territory (NT) to “keep remote communities safe.” They arrived on commercial flights. While other passengers went into 14 days’ quarantine, these police — exempted by the NT Chief Health Officer — headed straight for Aboriginal communities, putting vulnerable groups at unnecessary risk.
Meanwhile, the lack of access to the internet seriously limits health information getting to remote communities. And online schooling is difficult, if not impossible, for Aboriginal children.
The Indigenous economy, which relies on art and cultural tours, has been hit hard. With tourism at a standstill, income has evaporated. An economic situation that was precarious is now desperate. Aboriginal community-controlled organisations call for more funds for infrastructure as well as healthcare and housing. Overcrowding makes the official call to maintain physical distancing a sick joke.
A televised report highlighted the urgent need for housing. It featured a group of Aboriginal rough sleepers who had set up a makeshift camp in Perth. After it aired, the cops swooped in. Police issued a notice to move on for “failing to physically distance” and gave people 10 minutes to leave!
As Gunnai-Gunditjmara leader, Lidia Thorpe, noted in a live stream talk, “Our people are in trouble — emergency action is needed now!” One initiative from within the community is the establishment of a Covid-19 Victorian First Nations Mutual Aid Fund.
Migrants also rely on community solidarity. There are over 1.1 million workers and students on temporary visas in Australia. This includes more than 90,000 refugees going through the asylum process. If they lose their jobs these people are excluded from government unemployment programs. Opposition to leaving any workers out is growing, and the union movement is campaigning for expanded programs.
Fight on! While the virus does not discriminate, capitalism does. First Nations and all workers have a fight on their hands!
Aboriginal control of the response to Covid-19 in First Nations’ communities! A living wage for all, regardless of visa status. House the homeless. Release refugees and all vulnerable prisoners into the community.