Gratitude in the Time of a Pandemic: Melburnian and Indigenous Solidarity during Coronavirus

From the comfort of my Tasmanian home, seemingly remote from the pandemic, as we begin our fourth month free of the virus, I am more and more grateful for the selfless acts of others that have protected me.

If we were in a traditional war of weapons and defence to protect our shores, then the people of Melbourne would become a generation of heroes. I offer my gratitude to the millions of Melburnians who made sacrifices to ensure that I was safe. Locked down for months, removed from family and friends, struggling against mental health challenges, domestic violence and loss of income, still they did what was needed to protect our communities, often  while shouldering the criticism of those who thought less of them for doing it. 

Millions of people giving up so much for our collective good health; a city that held its centre despite all those who expected it to fail. But I see you from my safe island home and I am grateful that you did this for me, my family and my communities.

I am employed at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and have had the good fortune of working from Tasmania since late 2019. Yet I have participated in almost daily internet catch-ups with colleagues from the Centre for Social Impact and I have seen these dear people going through the things of everyday life—separation, pregnancy, long-term illness, finishing degrees, raising children, caring for pets, keeping families together—with the added strictures of staying in one place. I do not know where this resilience and selflessness came from, but I am in awe of them. My Melbourne colleagues seemed not to think that their sacrifice was too much to ask to keep everyone safe. They lived with the extreme stress and pressure of lockdown with grace and the humility to experience the joys of freedom with an open delight in the small things. I keep them closer to my heart than ever before.

The people of Melbourne should be applauded nationally. Instead, though, our attention has turned to who did what in the politics of public and economic health. While there are urgent questions to investigate as to what went wrong and what could have been done better, we have forgotten to pause and give thanks to the individuals who, quite likely, saved us from the national sorrows of overwhelming death and never-ending waves of COVID. Melbourne is a strong city, and the sense of community it achieved among millions of strangers has left an indelible mark of gratitude upon me.

I am particularly grateful because I am Aboriginal. I am part of the population that is vulnerable to pandemics and government  neglect of  community health. The trauma of a virus that kills us more quickly and in greater numbers than it kills other Australians is close in my memory; it is among the intergenerational harms that colonisation keeps on giving. It is an astonishing and extraordinary statistic that no Indigenous person within an Indigenous community has died from COVID. Perhaps even more amazing are the infection rates: 0.5 per cent of infections for 3.3 per cent of the Australian population. This comes to a nearly seven times lower infection rate in comparison to non-Indigenous people. This is not accidental, however; this is by rapid, Indigenous-led design. So I am grateful, too, to every Indigenous person for giving so tirelessly and selflessly to protect and cherish our cultures and communities.

We communicated quickly and openly, we locked down ahead of everyone else, we ensured that holistic well-being was the centre of our responses and we treated ourselves with a dignity that we are not subject to in other areas of our Indigenous lives. We survived this initial pandemic better than any other distinct group of Australian people. I do not expect that there will be public admiration for us for any of this. Yet I am privileged to belong to this culture of magnificence and to know that our ways of caring for each other can offer so many lessons for mainstream public health and society. I am grateful that our Elders and leaders and community members have been able to hold fast, to care for country and peoples ahead of the pack and to the highest standard of collective health and well-being. We remember the loss of our living archives of knowledge in those first waves of colonisation 200-plus years ago, as well as the ongoing chronic health impacts associated with that loss, and we would not repeat that damage.

If we were in a war, then Indigenous peoples would still be an enemy. We would be held responsible for things beyond our control, blamed for situations we did not create, exiled from the communities we had built around us. Yet we are survivors of past wars, and through this resilience and our allegiance to our respective countries, we knew what was required: responses could only come from us, for us, to keep us safe from harm. The dignity and respect we afford those who suffer illness or disability mean that no one is the lesser for not being more. Instead, many from my own community felt empathy for those who have no experience of pandemics and the tearing of social fabrics; from deep experience we know your pain and anxiety.

Is there room for an openness and genuine coming together to learn from Indigenous responses to pandemics? Can we develop a shared language of recovery from trauma? It is my hope that as we pick up the pieces in the aftermath, ever wary and reflective on the tumult we have been through, there is room to be grateful to those who have done much for all Australians. I hope that we may publicly celebrate our cherished notions of community, sacrifice and good health in ways that are inclusive to every effort, no matter how remote or how urban.

I will remember this pandemic as a time of global confusion, but with this little light and comfort from believing in my fellow Australians that we got things right when it counted the most. Perhaps there may even be a little room for Indigenous ways of belonging to be recognised and acknowledged as important in the reshaping of the relationships we have with each other, for a positive future.

Whatever It Takes: The politics of Indigenous vulnerability and extracted futures in northern Australia

Lisa Stefanoff, Sep 2020

Blink and you’ll miss the Northern Territory on national COVID-19 graphs. Almost 34,000 tests have been conducted here since March. All 34 positively diagnosed people, mostly returned travellers, have recovered. No community transmission, no deaths.

About the author

Emma Lee

Dr Emma Lee is a trawlwulwuy woman from tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania. She is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Fellow at Regionxlink programs, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology.

More articles by Emma Lee

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