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

Radically uneven material histories of COVID-19 are unfolding across places, bodies, species, institutions and economies. Senses of the pandemic and its futures are also playing out differently in every imagination. I write from a ‘before’ or a ‘not yet’ within the global corona story—a knife’s edge, a desert cliff. Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Central Arrernte country, where at least for now we remain a COVID-free zone. As Melbourne enters level 4 restrictions in response to a surge in case numbers, and its eastern and southern neighbours teeter on the edge of similar outbreaks, Chief Minister Michael Gunner has told NT residents to cancel interstate Christmas travel plans and to get used to our borders being tightly biosecured for the next eighteen months.  

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. Nothing, really. Yet, galleries, cafes and other small businesses in the Alice Springs mall that survived autumn’s lockdowns are only just holding on. The queues at Centrelink are longer, and slower. Testing clinics have finally opened in a few places and are quiet, but iso-absences are becoming more common. Our ‘new normal’, delineated by the rolling end of blanket restrictions and the era of more targeted responses since early June, is a place of anxious anticipation. New lines in the sand are shaping our inner cartographies and economic horizons: ‘we’ are safe, and tense. Hot spots are everywhere else. 

We? 

Post-colonised Indigenous histories all over the world have been deformed by the horrors of intentionally and accidentally introduced epidemics. Over the past six months, COVID-19 has killed disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous people in South and North America. Remote Amazonian societies and Navajo people living in desert reservations alike have suffered at the hands of dangerous denialist regimes. In the United States, insecure basic infrastructure, mirrored disgracefully across remote Australian communities, has played a key role in the rapid spread. People have been surprised to learn through this story that clean water, or any water—a basic for life and sanitation—is not a given in many First Nations worlds. The CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Arrernte/Gurdanji woman Pat Turner, told Australia in March that COVID-19 would have ‘catastrophic’ effects on Aboriginal people, especially in remote communities. ‘Co-morbidity’ rates are already disastrous and many houses are unliveable and unsuited to quarantine—not to mention a rapidly heating climate. Here, the ‘gap’ that no policy has been able to close is closer to forty years than twenty.  

‘We’ is, of course, a viral political fiction. It blooms brightly in times of war and its occlusions mask the specificities of ground, network and process. The Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC), the Central Land Council (CLC), the Nganampa Health Council on the APY Lands, and other health and social service organisations have been in pandemic-preparedness planning since last summer, before many people were aware of the trouble brewing in Wuhan. Amid a raft of allied measures, rapid-response ‘Genexpert Point of Care’ testing capacity and training are now being rolled out in remote clinics. An adaptation of the successful ‘contain and test’ strategy employed in the Italian village of Vo’ has been modelled as a major weapon for the resistance, should the virus slip in.  

Ballots and borders 

As we wash our hands at a safe distance and hope (like hell) that our intimately small actions will help to keep the assassin at bay, Chief Minister Gunner is heading towards the ballot box and navigating the grim publicity of recent debt figures, including a half-billion-dollar corona-time drop in GST revenue. His health minister, Natasha Fyles, is managing quarantine centres at each end of a 1500-kilometre highway, shuttling isolation cases into town from controversial flights landing in Yulara (Ayers Rock) from eastern hot spots and chasing biosecurity runaways with $5000 fines. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Territorians safe: Gunner’s first-person emergency-response mantra is also now the Australian Labor Party’s platform for re-election. 

It’s early August, a divine time of year in Central Arrernte country, seasonally speaking, and usually the height of the annual Australian and international tourist pilgrimage to experience sacred country and original culture. Mparntwe (Alice Springs) is of course much quieter than usual. No backpackers, no European hikers, no Chinese tour groups. Despite a midyear stimulus package that offered to match up to $200 for local holiday spends, the tourist industry is on its knees. The economic pinch is being felt to some degree in all non-essential directions. Beloved annual festivals have been cancelled. Conferences, workshops and meetings are no longer happening in local boardrooms. People drawn to town from the bush to see family and buy affordable goods are making shorter trips than usual and fewer people are on the move. With most Centrelink payments having risen, and superannuation accounts open for $10,000 withdrawals, the shelves of the large all-wares stores are half empty, and there has been a run on secondhand cars. Many people are still ‘sitting down’ (staying put) in their communities and outstations. Community service organisations are reportedly receiving higher than usual numbers of job applications from interstate. Servicing the bush has required a raft of new or adjusted management procedures. Among these, the Central Land Council is assessing and issuing new mandatory essential-service-provider land entry permits for anyone heading in from elsewhere. 

Here, in the dusty town whose economy rests partly on the shadow presence of the US military community and an endless northern supply flow of road trains and road-trippers, we feel the sickness scratching at the edges of our seeming sanctuary. The authorities, and anyone who thinks about it, knows that it will only take a tiny leak in the border-security system for us to quickly lose our footing. If the Northern Territory evades the fate of Victoria it will be because Indigenous Territorians are the most vulnerable population in the country and the NT government has so far heeded the advice of Indigenous health leaders, prioritising border security as its primary line of defence. This moral-scientific stance will, de facto, protect everyone, including the thousands of non-Indigenous people whose jobs are entangled in the administration and support of Indigenous lives and livelihoods and those who profit locally from them. QAnon anti-mask conspiracy theorists and racist ‘sovereign citizens’ might find it hard to imagine that Aboriginal-led and Aboriginal-centred health proactivity could be their saving grace.  

The Alice Springs hospital always works at or above capacity. It’s only rarely that the six-bed ICU and four-bed HDU are not full. Pre-COVID, the hospital had only a few ventilators. Ensuring adequate staffing is challenging at the best of times. Incoming nurses are offered bonuses to stay. Acute care is often referred to Adelaide or other major city hospitals. Friends working in local health services told social-media conversations in late March that they were ‘shit scared’ of what might be unfolding across the country. Whitefella doctors were among the first parents at our kids’ school to pull their children out and batten down into the home-learning experiment. Their anxiety motivated many of us to follow suit.  

Imagining mutual aid 

The first phase of the pandemic, in the month before Easter, shoved us out of summer’s angry dragon’s tail into unfamiliar states of suspended animation as we all waited for the microbial Godot. The Extinction Rebellion–inspired school climate strikes last spring and distanced connections with the monstrous southern fires hadn’t prepared anyone for the physical atomisation of a busy, close-knit community when the biome strikes back. ‘Mutual responsibility’, long co-opted by the neoliberal welfare bureaucracy, found enhanced, humane meanings and urgency in the re-imagining of the needs of a diverse community.  

The scale, history and location of Mparntwe make it an extremely interlocked place. The Mutual Aid Alice Springs network sprouted quickly out of the imaginations of local social justice and environmental activists and artists and Zoomed up into a robust online platform as a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting thousands of members within a fortnight. Fighting off fracking; fighting off a virus—the same local, care-based motivations were now morphing across scales. The group carved up the town map, bought mobile phones with community-bank sponsorship, set up an on-call roster and letterboxed neighbourhoods with leaflets advising relevant numbers to ring for iso-assistance. Bubbling enthusiasm for the possibilities of laterally managing our own pop-up service delivery was tempered by sensible reminders that the town was already patterned by an extensive social-services sector. We didn’t need to reinvent wheels, but we recognised the degree to which an easily activated neighbour-scale safety net might come to matter when there are new, fatally consequential, vectors in play.  

Priorities and protections 

Just prior to the proclamation of the NT biosecurity regulations, in the last week of March, my husband and his colleagues returned more than sixty teenage boarders at Yirara College to their more remote home communities peppered across northern Australia. Aboriginal organisations across the region also acted swiftly. Children’s Ground proposed that an ‘Elders Protected Zone’ be established in town as a way of addressing the high risks of contagion in crowded multigenerational houses. It took a grand effort between a network of organisations and agencies and a $5 million Aboriginal Benefit Account (mining royalties) grant to support thousands of people stopping in town to return safely to remote desert communities and their outstations. By many accounts, cooperation levels over recent months have been higher than ever.  

The Biosecurity Act effectively banned church services, large funerals and the very important bush sorry camps where dispersed relatives gather to grieve together. Large, socially distanced Christian prayer and song gatherings happened nightly in some communities. Some bush churches remained physically open, and were visited, 24/7. I heard reports of increased numbers of ‘bush baptisms’, performed by local Indigenous clergy. In town, Sunday services that have been a feature of life in Alice Springs for almost a century stopped (and have since recommenced with socially distanced seating arrangements).  

An array of church-run social support services had to change tack during the first-wave lockdown. A Lutheran women’s ministry support worker told me, ‘The hardest thing for me has been saying No to people, especially when they ask for lifts. Ministry depends on mobility’. She saw this stepping back as a positive outcome of the restrictions. There are always other ways of getting around and new forms of independence don’t mean a loss of valued connection. Between June and August, recordings of the world-acclaimed Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir appeared a few times with those of other groups in the Zoomed launches of the refashioned Desert Song Festival. Intensifications of prayer, baptism and song in regional languages articulate a range of cultural priorities for safe futures.  

Self-determined safety 

The intimacies of human connection across the structuring schisms of race and class define a uniquely politicised affective space in which many of us work. A local family I know well, living in one of the eighteen Town Camps, responded to the safety demands of the autumn lockdown by installing a well-weathered caravan in their yard for the most senior family member to live in, insulating him from the human traffic of the main house. Having no doors ensures a good flow of fresh air through the van, but midyear nights are literally freezing. When this family has electricity, a small heater on a long extension cord warms his pod.  

In July the Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS) released its 28th Cost of Living Report, which highlighted power insecurity as a ‘critical issue’ and current digital prepayment technologies as a significant challenge for Town Camp, remote community and low-income households. (Of NT urban households that buy their electricity through digital prepayment meters, 62 per cent were found to experience ‘Involuntary “Self-Disconnections”’ at least once a year.) High power demands and high costs mean that if you run out of power you might not be able to charge your phone, boil your kettle or watch TV. While they use a lot of power, TVs have been essential platforms for the circulation of COVID information in local languages. 

Free-to-air and narrowcast community TV can evoke connection and identification and has played a key role in Central Australia since the establishment of pirate, community and commercial Aboriginal broadcast media across the region in the mid-1980s. On the Eastside of town, we tuned into excellent locally produced COVID-safe and biosecurity information media on free-to-air Indigenous Community TV (ICTV), ICTV Play and First Nation Media’s IndigiTube.com online. 

Yirara College who had already been producing a regular news program for ICTV, was able to transition to an ambitious daily production schedule for broadcast on the station and on Facebook. NPY Women’s Council produced a clip of visionary Aṉangu elder and artist Rene Kulitja demonstrating the choreography of good handwashing in real time and telling people in her Pitjantjatjara language to return home from town. Robert Hoosan and Michael Liddle, who represent nearby regions, made instructional clips specifically for their own communities. The men had a keen sense that arntety apetyenh (‘big sickness was arriving’) and acted quickly.  

A new sickness brings with it new language. Elders in the Ampilatwatja community, a couple of hours north of Mparntwe, agreed that ament angkem (separate talking) was the best way to explain what was meant by ‘social distancing’ and arteny—‘sitting down’ or staying put—the best way to describe what was expected by the ‘lockdown’ that ilkwernem (‘big people’, government) were talking about and the new rules they were mpwarek (making).  

Liddle’s messages are compelling viewing, even if you can’t understand what he’s saying. Standing outdoors, he talks straight to camera in a manner that few reporters or actors can easily mimic. He tells you that being overseas-areny (from overseas), no ngangker (traditional healer) can fix this arntety; that people have to look after each other carefully, listen to advice about washing hands, not share drinks or cigarettes, sneeze into elbows and follow all the new rules about moving around: no travel to town without a CLC exemption, and no sneaky backroads travel, for grog or anything else. As elsewhere around the world, Liddle felt that his greatest challenge was to convince people under forty that risk-taking could be lethal for many people beyond themselves and their households. A month or more into the lockdown, Liddle made follow-up clips to drive home the message that the risks remain.  

Posters and comic art have been important media for health promotion and community education campaigns in the desert for decades. In the 1980s, during the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Superhero Cuz Congress became a local screen celebrity. New communications employing graphic comic art and English have adopted a more serious tone. A recent one by the CLC conveys the ‘contain and test’ plan for communities that will be implemented should there be an outbreak in the desert. 

Artists and community-controlled art centres across northern Australia have been on the frontline of the Territory’s economic blows. In March, Jon Altman and Frances Markham described this scenario in The Conversation as ‘the other Indigenous coronavirus crisis’, with impacts for artists and their dependents and communities, as well as the Territory’s majority non-Indigenous management workforce. Art-centre peak bodies and the Indigenous Art Code also moved quickly into risk-management mode, commissioning and releasing a report early on that foreshadowed impacts and outlined financial-support options for the sector. Art centres are marketing on Instagram like never before, sharing works-in-progress, messages from artists and snaps of art-centre life. Centres in town shut their doors to the public and are reopening them only in closely controlled ways.  

Home security 

In late July, Victoria was plunged into stage 4 restrictions and the policing of NT borders became the topic at the tip of many tongues. Anxiety was rising and friends shared it. Avoid the servos near the caravan parks. Don’t go to the big chain stores or bottlos. Do you think we should we wear masks at the supermarkets, even though no one else is? Passenger arrivals into Alice Springs (and Darwin) dropped by over 90 per cent in the April–June quarter. Although traffic was right down, we knew it would only take one lie or mistake on a form on one flight to push the desert community over the edge.  

In early August, Aṉangu people pushed back against the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC), which owns the Yulara resort and airport, and established a multi-car road block to protect the nearby Mutitjulu community from risky fly-in tourists. For those behind the blockade, keeping things shut down and safe outweighed the impact of considerable losses in national-park gate money. The airlines that sold travel to Yulara at such a time seemed to have learned nothing about the force of Aṉangu care for lives and country that also informed the decision to permanently close the Uluru climb late last year. This time, heady negotiations ended in favour of Mutitjulu residents, and the disappointed tourists were sent home. 

Northern futures 

Locking the borders of a faltering economy to protect a vulnerable population is a seemingly bold act. Gunner has let it be known that he wants to discuss a cancellation of longstanding NT debts to the Commonwealth, but progressing unconventional gas extraction in the Beetleloo Basin will likely be on the table for any such negotiations, as has been the case in the past. The National COVID-19 Commission, which includes NT born-and-bred and US chemical industry–cultivated ‘Senior Advisor to the Saudi Arabian Governments Sovereign Wealth Fund PIF’ Andrew Liveris, is hovering low over northern futures, and the Territory government’s empty hands post-INPEX are pretty much tied. Tacit and explicit bipartisan Commonwealth–Territory support for a ‘gas-led recovery’ brings with it the familiar stench of what Tess Lea calls ‘wild policy’, re-minted for spin in the coming phases of home-grown ‘disaster capitalism’, as Naomi Klein describes it. 

The shadow zone 

US military personnel have been among the infected and hospital-isolated patients in Darwin. Rumour has it that the Australia–US Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap has its own sophisticated hospital buried beneath its visible white bulbs. Local writer Kieran Finnane’s important new book, Peace Crimes, highlights the obscurity of the role of the base in the United States’ global military activities to most people in Alice Springs. When a journalist at an early pandemic press conference asked our prime minister, Scott Morrison, about rotations of Pine Gap personnel in and out of the United States and Alice Springs, Morrison stonewalled the query and physically turned 180 degrees to take another question. A masked guard sprang out from behind a fence at one of the drive-through COVID-19 testing places in the industrial part of town when I tried to take a photograph as a possible illustration for this article. The young guy in the reception tent impressed upon me that he couldn’t reveal who owned the unmarked and unremarkable building but allowed me a nod-affirmed guess. It seemed pretty clear that the base and/or defence contractor Raytheon are cooperating in the Territory’s COVID response. It’s unlikely that we will ever know the extent or nature of this cooperation.  

Are we fracked? 

‘We’ of all stripes in the desert and across the Northern Territory live in hope, disappointment, fear and varying states of fatigue. On the ground, Aboriginal and other organisations and people across health, environment and cultural sectors know very well the risks that are facing country and communities, and know how to reach the best solutions for them. Locking the borders for a while yet is an opportunity to put heft into supporting sustainable options for safe passage out of the pandemic. It’s also an opportunity to draw on the tremendous will that has always existed for practical forms of Indigenous self-determination, to imagine genuine renewal in the wake of crisis.  

The moment for designing that transition could be now.  But the Northern Territory’s post-pandemic future is in the grip of a Faustian compact. Anti-fracking activists are working hard knowing that neither of the major parties will dare dampen the visions of northern utopias being built from the mineral depths of country. It looks from this knife’s edge of the pandemic that sacrificing tourism to Indigenous health will make it easier for the NT government to oblige the remote-control forces of Canberra’s gas-happy elite and their spin-doctors as a matter of apparent necessity.  

Would you like a new manufacturing precinct and a diversified productive regional future that isn’t at risk from climate change and biosecurity problems in the way live cattle exports and mangoes are? It will need big gas turbines, we’re told.  This calculus is deeply unsettling and its next-wave implications alarming for a region seriously discussing its near-future liveability as planetary temperatures continue to rise. 

Note: The ALP government, led by Chief Minister Michael Gunner, was returned to power in the August 21 election. 

About the author

Lisa Stefanoff

Lisa Stefanoff is a researcher, media producer, curator and mother based in Mparntwe, Central Arrernte country, and currently an ARC Research Fellow at the National Institute for Experimental Arts, UNSW Architecture, Art and Design. She respectfully acknowledges the creators, owners and keepers of all country and the priority of their action and voices.

More articles by Lisa Stefanoff

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply