In the words of George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
We live in dangerous times, not unprecedented times. This is not the first infectious agent to devastate our Continent, but our collective memory as a Nation and The Great Australian Amnesia have failed us. The consequences will be lethal.
The first episode in our post-invasion history began in the late 1780s and rapidly spread across the Continent. There are written accounts of vast areas around Sydney Harbour where bodies of Aboriginal people were piled high in caves and coves were filled with the floating dead.
Smallpox was the agent of apocalypse that time and moved like the Grim Reaper along our highways, song-lines and trade routes from Nation to Nation, leaving societal collapse in its path. So severe was its impact that the early English descriptions of Aboriginal society around NSW reflect a society recovering from collapse. We read in the early journals of nomadic hunter gatherers, living a subsistence lifestyle in humpies, dehumanised, traumatised. Through the bias and ignorance of the English it was assumed that those people had always lived that way and European logic followed that Aboriginal Peoples were therefore inferior. Inferiority justified the conquest of land and confirmation bias enabled it, despite the overwhelming physical evidence demonstrating otherwise.
Aboriginal oral history tells otherwise though, of many organised Nations across the Continent consisting of often large and sophisticated societies before the arrival of the English, with extensive trade and economic routes, complex governance and justice systems, permanent and semi-permanent villages, both firestick farming and active tilling of the land, resource accumulation, preservation and siloing of food, water sequestration and controlled borders. Bruce Pascoe’s excellent book “Dark Emu” provides us with some insight into what pre-pox Aboriginal societies looked like, found in the early English journals written as the invasion front fanned further out and encountered societies restoring their systems and societies. We were still doomed though, with our Continent’s population plummeting from 100% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to the current 3%.
Where the pox had failed, the musket, hate and rifle looked to finish the job.
The second major episode on the Continent came in 1918/9, with the arrival of the Spanish Influenza pandemic.
By that time Australia had Federated and its Indigenous Peoples were not counted in the Country’s official statistics.
Active massacres and “black hunts” of Aboriginal people were still occurring across the Continent and there was little interest in the survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
“Aboriginal people were forced to collect wood for their own pyres in at least four cases of mass killing in Western Australia, a practice that was still happening as late as 1926”. As a result we do not know how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples died of the Spanish Flu but it was likely significant. We do know that around 12,000 settler Australians died. State borders were closed, quarantine stations were established and economic devastation followed. It caused a significant blow to a society recovering from a recent World War and subsequent depopulation of its males. What was absent that time was an aggressive foreign power intent on seizing the Continent for its own purposes.
Fast forward to early 2020. Reports were coming out from China of a new, highly virulent virus. We assumed that this outbreak would be contained and disappear, just as SARS and swine flu had earlier. Then we decided to respond by fighting over toilet paper, led by a Prime Minster more intent on attending a football match than engaging in true leadership.
We humoured our National pastime of The Great Australian Amnesia and forgot the lessons of the past, squandered the opportunity to plan, ignored what we knew we had to do to and behaved like the over-indulged Westerners we have become as a Nation. Even now, people continue to live in denial and refuse to isolate, despite the predictions we will be where Italy currently is in 10-20 days. Queensland is proceeding with local government elections.
Consequently, Australia will now be affected by the full force of Covid-19 and people will die unnecessarily. The most vulnerable in society – the elderly, unwell and Indigenous – will be hit hardest. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples the impact of Covid-19 will be compounded by years of neglect and a failure to address the social determinants of health.
Overcrowding, poor housing, lack of adequate access to clean water, racism and lack of access to services will condemn more of us to an early grave than mainstream Australians. Qualified Indigenous medical doctors, members of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, are already reporting cases of overt racism towards Indigenous patients presenting with possible Covid-19.
This is just the beginning of the crisis and we need to get through this together; Covid-19 has no regard for colour or creed.
We risk losing more holders of the World’s old living culture, again.
Probably time to give our First Nations a fair go, what do you think Australia?
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