First we made it through the ice age. Then the catastrophe of British invasion. Whatever history has thrown at blackfellas we have endured
I’m Aboriginal, so this is where I am supposed to tell you exactly how awful Covid has been for us, as the global economy tanks and Australia’s health system creaks under the strain of the pandemic. How “we’re all in this together” – but maybe some of us are more in it together than others.
Here’s where I write about how the Indigenous poor have gotten poorer still, and the Indigenous sick more wretched. I suppose the dead of all races can’t get any more dead, but in a country where us mob linger at the bottom of every statistical table, how could coronavirus be anything but yet more terrible, disabling news for the First Nations?
Well, here’s the thing. When you are Indigenous, and when you live as colonised Indigenous people for generations, your mob learns certain things. About exclusion, for instance, and the meaning of marginalisation. About how to distinguish necessity from luxury, and truth from lies. About how to survive generation after generation of externally imposed hard times. I’m not saying we haven’t been affected by the health crisis.
First Nations mob are two to three times sicker than mainstream Australians. Covid hitting us, especially in remote areas, would have been bloody terrible. For some individuals, it was. My own white sista Deb Kilroy was one of the first people in our community to catch the virus, along with young activist Neta-Rie Mabo, who had flown with Deb on the same international flight. Goomeroi singer-songwriter Thelma Plum was also infected. All these sistas (immediately dubbed the “Typhoid Murries”) had to isolate for long and difficult weeks. Deb and Neta ended up in hospital in Meanjin, sick as dogs. So it’s not like it didn’t affect my Blak community. It’s just that there’s more to the Aboriginal story than suffering. There always is. For Indigenous people, Covid has been both easier and harder to live through than for others on this continent.
Let’s start with the ridiculous: the toilet paper wars. Forget the virus – like the Muslim community, Aboriginal Australia was in grave danger of dying of laughter at the sight of mainstream suburbanites actually punching on over bog roll. My Facebook thread began to resemble the Monty Python skit – Toilet paper?! Luxury!! Blackfellas from Perth to Penrith began reminiscing about squares of newspaper hanging on a nail in the thunder box. Or using rags when homeless, or stripping paperbark trees out bush. I was simply agog: in a nation where nearly all whitefellas have access to drinkable running water, there was panic over people not being able to remove the shit from their bodies. Freud would have had a field day. Some blackfellas reckoned Covid was almost worth the stress, just to see dugais on the news, brawling in Coles over their precious 12-packs of Sorbent. (Another silver lining: for once we weren’t the only ones being profiled and stalked by store security.)
Aboriginal people and organisations swung into action fast all over Australia, determined to protect our precious elders and vulnerable others. The mob solidarity born out of classical Aboriginal culture was there as it always is; Australia might only rarely value our lives, but we do, and we know how to stick together to protect them. As the Blak journalist Amy McQuire rightly noted, the Aboriginal health networks didn’t wait around for white governments to save us. Remote communities locked themselves down early, and hard. Most remain locked down now, in mid-2020, doing what needs to be done to shield themselves from a mainstream Australia even more fatal to black lives than usual.
“Sunshine doesn’t kill the virus,” one Aboriginal health video advised, “and rain won’t wash it away.” A near-toothless aunty with silver hair was roped in to deliver the message that Covid was really really serious, you mob. Materials were rapidly produced in multiple Indigenous languages for those with limited or no English. The faces in all these videos had to be blackfellas, and they had to be grassroots faces, because most Aboriginal people have very little reason to trust white authority.
My Asian friends were quick to don surgical masks. But some of my Aboriginal rellos were – and remain – highly sceptical about social distancing. Since when did Australian governments ever want to help blackfellas? What were they trying to gain by keeping us apart? If Blak togetherness and solidarity are our saviours – and they most definitely are – was social distancing a distraction from some other, more sinister agenda?
Conspiracy theories abounded. African babies were being abducted and experimented on by western scientists trying to develop a vaccine. The virus was deliberately introduced, by the Chinese, by the Russians, by the right here. Take your pick. Crazy talk, yes. And inexplicable to outsiders, until you remember that the Country party in Queensland was injecting young Aboriginal women with Depo-Provera a few short decades ago. Injecting our people without informed consent in an explicit attempt to prevent Aboriginal babies being born.
It was also not lost on our mobs that the British invasion in 1788 brought smallpox to these shores. Nobody has yet been able to either prove or disprove that that virus was deliberately introduced to Sydney. Native Americans were purposely given pox-infected blankets, though, and it’s plausible that the same was done here. Biological warfare doesn’t feel new to us; it just feels like the logical extension of overpolicing Aboriginal suburbs, or defunding our Blak services, or telling us to “have a go to get a go” when our imprisonment rates are higher than blacks in apartheid South Africa.
We all live in an era of failing western “democracies”. Mainstream citizens like my white working-class neighbours are also disaffected and grumble about “elites” and “Canberra bubbles”. But if you aren’t Aboriginal, you will have no generational memory of Australian governments actively trying over two centuries to wipe your mob out. No knowledge that, to a large minority of fellow citizens, your culture, your life, you – are deemed utterly worthless. (Don’t believe me? Try reading the comments under literally any Aboriginal article in the mainstream media.)
Governments didn’t have explicit policies of removing Aboriginal kids for more than a century through benevolence. They did it to destroy us as Aboriginal. To make us European in genetics and in culture. That’s why little Koori kids in New South Wales institutions were encouraged to pray that they’d wake up white. That’s why so many of us have pale skin today. We have been the targets of state-sanctioned genocide since Australia began.
So our First Nations medical services and other Indigenous health workers had quite the job on their hands to convince blackfellas that Covid mattered, and it wasn’t just government spin. To protect us from the mainstream inertia and the massive underfunding. It’s a job they did very fast and very well. Along with the state border lockdowns and other necessary measures, Blak health experts and health workers saved many, many lives of the sick and the old. Those aren’t lives you’ll see celebrated often. But we know what they’re worth, because elders especially hold our memories. Of traditional culture, of traditional medicines and practices and languages. Of survival.
It’s no accident that we have managed this pandemic as well as we have. Survival is what we do. First we made it through the ice age. Then the catastrophe of British invasion: pox, guns, all the rest. Poverty, capitalism, ongoing child removal. Policies of attempted genocide. Whatever history has thrown at blackfellas, we have survived. And often thrived.
When Covid forced Australia to stay home for long tedious weeks, the wailing about being “locked up” and “imprisoned” came loud and long from the middle class. Uh-huh. Being imprisoned, either literally or else metaphorically by poverty (getting further than the local park takes cash) is something many blackfellas have experienced. And it doesn’t resemble sitting comfortably at home with Netflix and Uber Eats. So cry me a river, bitches. The iso most Australians have come through is laughably easy compared with being locked in a racist white institution with your psych meds abruptly ripped away, without family visits, without anyone who speaks your Aboriginal language, sans power or dignity or human rights. Try being a rape survivor repeatedly strip-searched behind bars by armed strangers before you complain about being “imprisoned” in your suburban home.
When supermarket food seemed like it might run out, and Australia went berserk stockpiling, we reminded each other that we have lived off the land here for upwards of 100,000 years. And that plenty of our mob with access to land still do. Uncle Denis Foley grew up eating bush tucker from the Narrabeen swamp and roadkill off the northern Sydney highway; he might be a Canberra university professor today, but the lessons from grassroots life are still the most important. Look after country so country can look after us.
A Goorie neighbour simply nods when I talk about the Herefords near our place, and how we can knock a few on the head if the supply chain fails: “Just common sense, ay, sis.” Maslow’s hierarchy has never struck us as theoretical: food, water, shelter, mob – these are the essentials of life. You have to be pretty high up the white supremacist hierarchy to lose sight of that simple fact.
In my own family, we grew most of what we ate as kids, and it was a rare trip that didn’t see Mum pulling the car over to collect free food: wild guavas, footpath mangoes and paddock mushrooms, all supplements to what the chooks laid and our own labour in the garden produced. Perhaps because I’m the child of refugees as well as being Aboriginal, I’ve never trusted the mainstream economy not to throw us to the wolves.
Capitalism as we know it has consistently failed the poor along with the Blak. Not to mention the environment on which everything rests. It didn’t take Covid for us to realise that. Plenty of First Nations cupboards were already empty long before February 2020, and will be for a long time after the pandemic is gone. There are lots of regions in Australia, even in major cities, where it isn’t safe to tread while visibly Blak, because of vicious skinheads, and murderous vigilantes, and the ever-present reality of police who kill.