First Nations leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

Image of Marilyn by fire Purple House.
Marilyn by the fire. Photo: Purple House

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities were at the forefront of effective responses to COVID-19. While the crisis exposed startling inequities in Australia’s health outcomes, so too has it shown the enduring resilience, creativity, and decisiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and governance.

This story includes information from a webinar series, hosted by the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute (AIGI), in which participants discussed First Nations communities responses to the crisis, what can we learn from these responses, and how to take these innovations forward.

In March 2020, the Ngurrara community, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, was just one of many remote communities that made the difficult decision to lockdown their Country ahead of the rise of COVID-19.

Peter Murray, CEO of Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation, helps manage the Ngurrara community’s 77,595 square kilometres of native title lands, as well as being the deputy chair of the 10Deserts Project. Despite making action plans for months, he said the lockdown was “a big fright for [his] mob.”

“It was really hard upfront. A lot of [community members] couldn’t understand the high risk.”

Aboriginal-controlled health services also were anticipating and planning for the pandemic.

“We didn’t wait for the Australian government or anybody else to tell us how serious [COVID-19] was,” said Pat Turner AM, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

“We wrote directly to the Prime Minister, every premier, and every chief minister asking them to take urgent action in line with what was happening … with [First Nations] communities closing down.”

We wanted to protect our people because we knew the vulnerability.

Due to many interrelated reasons—including chronic health issues and inequitable access to services and housing—First Nations peoples are significantly at risk of contracting COVID-19.

This crisis, according to Pat Turner, exposed the fault lines of neglect and inequity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes. “It doesn’t matter where our people live. We have over crowded housing with multi-generational families whether you’re in downtown Melbourne, a regional town, or a remote area.”

This is why for leaders like Peter Murray, protecting the community was the ultimate priority. “We can’t afford to have even one case in the community … it would spread like wildfire.”

Opportunities for leadership

A study published in the Australian Journal of Medicine lauded First Nations communities for leading the way in COVID-19 pandemic planning, response, and management.

Sarah Brown AM, CEO of Purple House in Alice Springs, noted that when lockdown kicked off, non-Indigenous service providers closed shop, whereas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations were quick to work together and collaborate.

“There was a feeling that people had to work together to keep everyone safe,” she said.

People stepped up to their traditional leadership roles a lot more than they did when there were formal meetings organised by someone else.

This was an experience mirrored in the communities of the 10 Deserts Project, which spans 2.7 million square kilometres of central desert country.

According to Peter Murray, “during the lockdown, communities had full control of their area—it was a time to really stand up and put good action plans in place.”

This centring of control and self determination within communities shows the life and death importance of First Nations peoples leading the way with COVID-19 management in their communities.

“We’ve insisted that the government work in partnership [with us] and not make decisions in isolation from our people—that has been absolutely critical to the success to date,” said Pat Turner.

Culture and community control

Culture has been fundamental to the responsiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and leaders, and the uptake of preventative measures in the community.

Peter Murray’s community acted quickly to evacuate families “back into the communities…back out to Country, and to do hunting, food gathering, and knowledge transfer.”

“We are hearing stories of people using this time to get grandkids out to Country, looking after sacred sites, and valuing cultural knowledge and the added food that comes from hunting,” said Sarah Brown.

“Those cultural priorities of family and compassion and looking after Country… have really come to the forefront in remote communities.

“Networks … are now so much stronger and people are so much more willing to help each other out—a little while ago, clinics across the Territory were sharing what little PPE they had … even though they didn’t have enough for themselves.”

For Michelle Deshong, CEO of AIGI, it’s a positive lesson to take into the future.

It’s that commonality and that value around culture that’s helped some of those decisions come into play and be respected quite quickly in our communities.

New ways forward

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have combined cultural protocols and decision-making with technology in order to mitigate risks and increase access to services.

“This pandemic has shown the cracks in systems, but it’s also helped people get more creative,” said Sarah Brown.

Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations have used social media to stay in contact and keep up care with their patients and members. In remote communities, broadband has been extended and nurses have used Purple House’s real-time language app to share COVID-19 information across language communities.

According to Michelle Deshong, these successes show the efficacy of community control.

“When you allow decision-making to sit within the communities, it means we can be proactive and we can respond and communicate with our mob in a way that doesn’t require the same levels of bureaucracy and obstacles.”

For others, these innovations in response to the crisis have raised expectations and optimism for what is possible, and set precedence for new ways forward.

“I’m really hopeful that we will continue to use teleconferencing and telemedicine to reduce the remoteness of some communities and give people the option not to travel off Country for things—that’s a really strong lesson from this,” said Sarah Brown.

Looking to the future

In comparison to the devastating incidence of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities abroad, rates of COVID-19 in First Nations peoples in Australia remain proportionately lower than the rest of the population.

The Department of Health’s mid- September COVID-19 Epidemiology report shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are 3.3% of the population, but only 0.5% of all COVID-19 cases.

This success points to the efficacy of First Nations decision-making in this crisis so far, and will no doubt act as a crucial case study for placing agency in the hands of communities into the future.

Regardless, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders remain vigilant.

“As long as [Covid-19] exists in Australia, our people are at the highest risk,” said Pat Turner.

“What we have to maintain is the connectivity that we’ve built up between our people at the very local community level, into a regional level, feeding into the national level”.

AIGI is an independent, non-government, not-for-profit organisation that is a centre of knowledge and excellence in governance; connecting Indigenous groups, individuals and organisations to world-class best-practice expertise and knowledge, with a focus on building sustainable, effective and legitimate governance on the ground. Find out more about its work and its ongoing webinar series at:

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Reconciliation News

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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