Image: Neil Morrell (Pixabay)

Image: Neil Morrell (Pixabay)

The deadly virus delivers accidental benefit to remote Indigenous Australia

1st May 2020

By Joh Altman

The past two weeks have seen some extraordinary backflips by the current government on some of its long-cherished beliefs as its shutdown of the economy has resulted in the addition of likely millions to the dole queue. The resulting introduction of new JobSeeker and JobKeeper income-support measures will have a significant accidental benefit on the economic situation in remote Indigenous Australia.

The earliest reported negative impacts of measures to control COVID-19 on remote Indigenous people was in the downturn of tourism visitation and an associated impact on art sales. My initial concern was that art-centre closures could see disposable income of people already deeply impoverished decline by up to 15 per cent and that this would cause immediate economic hardship.

To offset this impact, it was advocated that the government suspend the Community Development Program (CDP) and its compulsory participation and activity-testing regime that has seen thousands of Indigenous participants financially penalised since 2015. This program has been criticised by many commentators and in Arena Magazine no.150 I likened it to modern-day slavery. It was also recommended that Newstart payments (recently renamed JobSeeker Payments, ironically just as jobs are extinguished by government action) increase significantly.

The government’s economic-survival measures announced as a part of its second stimulus package of 23 March exceeded the hopeful lobbying for a rise in income support. The government also suspended CDP, sensibly recognising that group activity and intensive case management will be too risky to countenance.

These decisions now see CDP dead and buried for the foreseeable future. For Indigenous people who live in places where there are inadequate or missing labour markets, the demeaning farce of compulsory job searching where there are no jobs has ended for now. The Indigenous unemployed in remote Australia will be treated like millions of other Australian citizens in similar circumstances.

Indeed, the nature of JobSeeker payments has fundamentally altered. Despite the new name, this has suddenly become an income-support scheme. And after years of deeply impoverishing the unemployed, its rate will double from 27 April. This doubling after years of resistance undoubtedly reflects concern about the imminent collapse of the market capitalist economy without massive fiscal stimulus. The fundamental improvement in the everyday livelihood situation for the long-term unemployed, who are disproportionately Indigenous, is nevertheless welcome: extreme poverty and COVID-19 would be a deadly cocktail.

These changes will have a massive economic impact on remote indigenous Australia, effectively doubling the overall incomes of many communities. This is because of high levels of unemployment—in many places only three in ten adults are in paid work. So, the second stimulus package will constitute a likely greater injection of cash to Indigenous households even than from their initial inclusion in the Australian social-security system some fifty years ago.

Even with this unprecedented boost, there is much more to be done on the economic front, as emerging Indigenous commercial and social enterprises will need ready access to the support now available under the JobKeeper payments of the third ‘support’ (no longer stimulus) package announced last week.

In remote Indigenous Australia, ensuring proper income support and the preservation of businesses will require the authorities to rapidly switch their modes of operation from being coercive and punishing to being supportive and caring. If such a switch of mindset were to occur—effectively ending the punitive culture of neoliberalism—the true number of those currently outside the income-support safety net will become apparent. It is imperative that all eligible income-support recipients, including many who have been driven out of the social-security system by the bureaucratic torture imposed by CDP’s onerous attendance requirements and penalties regime, get their proper entitlements to reduce the burden on others.

Remote community stores will face an immediate challenge to increase their stocks to cope with greatly enhanced demand that began last week with the first one-off economic-support payment of $750 made to all welfare recipients. As incomes double later this month, remote communities will face major logistical challenges with the management of supply chains and transportation.

These new economic-survival measures will only take us part of the way to addressing the devastating public-health challenge that COVID-19 represents. The reduction in extreme poverty and associated immediate increase in foodstuff consumption should help to lift the resilience of immune-compromised remote indigenous populations. These are people who already die prematurely from diabetes, rheumatic heart disease, liver and kidney failure and lung cancer and have extraordinarily high levels of morbidity owing to deep impoverishment and long-term neglect.

The challenge to keep COVID out of remote communities seems almost insurmountable given global evidence. Nevertheless, recognising the likely high loss of life from COVID-19 infection, the NT government is looking to enforce strict measures to require anyone returning from overseas or interstate or from outside communities to self-isolate. Working with Aboriginal land councils, there are measures to strictly limit entry onto Aboriginal-owned land. And there are plans to emergency evacuate any community members infected with the virus to facilities in larger urban centres because adequate medical personnel and facilities are absent in remote places.

But it is hard to see how cutting and pasting draconian social-distancing emergency measures will work in very different cultural contexts where intense bodily interaction and social relationality are so highly valued and where structural impoverishment also dictates close physical proximity: remote places face a COVID-19 double jeopardy. How can social distancing and requisite levels of personal hygiene be maintained when people live in overcrowded housing with limited ablution facilities sometimes shared by multiple families? This alone represents an almost insurmountable challenge to eliminating community transmission. Early reports from some communities indicate that the few available stores were terribly overcrowded and open long hours when the first $750 payment arrived, making a mockery of social-distancing edicts emanating from Canberra. Misguided policy to centralise people in such unhealthy under-resourced circumstances (which I discussed in Arena Magazine no. 148) has been a central plank of government policy in recent years—recall Tony Abbott’s insulting ‘lifestyle choice’ statement. Perhaps the pandemic will open possibilities for a return to homelands that offer healthier housing and living conditions as a ‘choice for survival’? Any additional loss of life will create further public-health challenges, as families will congregate for mortuary rituals in accord with social and moral prerogatives. The culturally distinct and infrastructure-limited circumstances of remote indigenous Australia make formulaic two-person public gathering and 4-square-metres-per-person indoor rules nonsensical.

All this indicates that there is an urgent need for a fundamental policy rethink to address the structurally embedded drivers of Indigenous marginality that this ‘national emergency’ highlights, yet again. It is imperative that some of the shifts we have seen devised for the good of the national economy and general population in recent weeks will be a harbinger of equalising changes, including addressing historical legacies, that will not be reversed when the COVID crisis is behind us.

This article was originally published in ARENA Onlineon 7 April 2020.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet