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Blog Supporting First Nations-led community initiatives during Covid
5 minutes

Supporting First Nations-led community initiatives during Covid

Paul Wright
Last edited: August 16, 2023

Things change so quickly during these strange times, it’s hard to keep track, particularly as Sydney has started to come out of pandemic-induced hibernation after four months of lockdown and restrictions.

I live on Darug Country out in the north west of Sydney, not far from the ​​Deerubben (Hawkesbury) River, and the four months seemed to go on and on. I am sure I am not alone in having developed a daily obsession with checking the covid case numbers, hospitalisations and vaccination rates across NSW. Wishing the vaccination numbers up and the case numbers down, hoping that it wouldn’t spread past Sydney.

It was early August when we started hearing that the Aboriginal communities in NSW, and particularly in the regions and more remote areas out west were way behind the vaccination rates of the non-Indigenous population. It was becoming increasingly evident that governments had dropped the ball in protecting some of the most vulnerable people in Australia.

One of the big positives from the handling of Covid last year was that the disease had been successfully kept out of remote and rural Aboriginal communities and we were all congratulating the First Nations leadership.

By mid-August this year the fears of the far more virulent Delta strain getting into the same communities were being realised as cases started to appear in places like Wilcannia and Dubbo. Within weeks, remote communities across western NSW were under siege by the pandemic.

It was at this time that I had a message from Worimi man and CEO of the First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN), Damian Griffis, saying that his team were increasingly hearing from Mob out west and in Western Sydney that were struggling with getting access to much needed supplies during the tight restrictions of lockdown. Damian and his team at FPDN have been a tower of strength for vulnerable communities and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families living with disability. The ability to reach out and share critical information and also hear from Mob about what was happening in their communities and to respond with agility and purpose has no doubt saved lives.

Several years ago, FPDN’s then Policy and Research Manager and now Lecturer at the Western Sydney University’s School of Social Sciences, Dr Scott Avery, wrote a seminal book on First Nations Peoples with disability called Culture is Inclusion. While highlighting the amplified impacts or the intersectionality of racism and ableism that First Nations Peoples with disability face in Australia, Dr Avery found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities remain far more inclusive and accepting than non-Indigenous communities. This is an abiding strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, tested by the adversities and pressures that have been brought to bear by 230 years of colonisation.

The extreme challenges of the pandemic have once again shown the resilience and connection of First Nations communities, and FPDN are part of that community response.

Recently, Damian organised a catch up with Frank Quinlan, the CEO of the Royal Flying Doctors Service and John Robertson, CEO of the ACT & NSW Foodbank and myself to discuss what could be done to support families and communities in need.

At ANTAR, we were getting a lot of inquiries from our great network of supporters and friends asking what they could do to help and contribute. We put out the call for donations to help fund the purchase of emergency supplies, including food, nappies and other necessities, and were overwhelmed with the response. To date, we have received over $8000 which we have passed on to FPDN to help with buying what is needed and also to cover some of the transportation costs.

FPDN have also been able to buy a new van to carry supplies around NSW and further afield to communities in need. The plan is to grow the fleet of vans and buses available at FPDN to help transport First Nations people with disability from their remote communities to the specialist appointments they have often struggled to get to.

Damian has been doing weekly supply trips throughout NSW, including to about 30 families in Western Sydney and I was able to join him several weeks ago on a delivery trip to Dubbo. After being cooped up for months, it was great to be driving through our amazing country again, although I was pretty tired the next day after 11+ hours of driving to Dubbo and back.

While we were driving out to Dubbo, we had calls from a number of Damian’s team, including Debbie Lee who is doing a lot of the coordination across NSW to understand where the gaps are and what help is needed. Debbie spoke of the determination of the aunties in places like Condobolin and Enngonia to make sure their families and communities are looked after and protected.

ANTaR stands proudly with FPDN and the many First Nations leaders and organisations around NSW and Australia who have worked tirelessly to protect and serve their communities. The monies raised are helping with short term relief and also some of the bigger investments in vans and buses that will continue to assist for years to come. Please support this important work and make a donation if you can, it’s greatly appreciated.

A big thanks to all those that have made donations and reached out to express support and concern.

Paul Wright
National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia

Paul is National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia. He was ANTAR’s National Director from 2018 to 2023 and has many years of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTAR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2021, he became a PhD Researcher at the Western Sydney University (Social Sciences).