The following reflection was written by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) around Australia Day in January, but has some relevant questions for us to ponder as several states remain under lockdown.
We find ourselves pondering whether Australia will ever be the same after COVID-19? It might be more useful to ask whether it should be the same after the pandemic. Australia can continue to learn from the challenges of the virus and embrace the gifts of First Nation’s Culture to make it a better place for all.
Whilst we should be talking about these things all year, Australia Day is often the trigger for discussions around moving the date, what our Country stands for or changing the National Anthem. For the record:
- Yes, we should change the date to May 27 (the day that Australia voted to grant citizenship to us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and to remove us from under the Fauna and Flora Act in 1967),
- Australia should stand for equality, respect, and compassion for all and,
- Yes, the National Anthem should be representative of all.
This year is different. As we approach Australia Day 2021, in addition to the questions above, we find ourselves pondering whether Australia will ever be the same after COVID-19. However, it might be more useful to consider whether we should arise from the pandemic the same after COVID-19?
With COVID-19 a continuing threat across the world, the following words of St John Paul II to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Alice Springs 1986 may never be more timely nor resonate more strongly for all Australians:
“If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now!’
We indeed are scorched and damaged, but we are still here, and we are still strong. What lessons can be taken from the pandemic, and our response to positively shape our collective morality, legislation and perspective towards others?
1. After suffering together through the pandemic, Australians should forge forwards with humble hearts and a unity of mind and armed with a renewed sense of equality and care for one another.
Amid an unmitigated global disaster, we were compelled to come together (metaphorically – certainly not physically) to protect ourselves, our friends, our loved ones and importantly others in society. We were like the trees that St John Paul II referred to – standing together amongst a sweeping bushfire. No one was immune as the COVID-19 virus spread across Australia. International news broadcasts chronicled the indiscriminate march of the pandemic across the world and made it clear that the postcode in which you live, the balance of your bank account and the language that you speak are all peripheral. We were and are one as a global community, united by our human vulnerabilities and our reliance upon one another for the greater good.
COVID-19 – a disaster that resulted in an incomprehensible loss of life across the world – showed us that we need to begin to grasp and consider the challenges experienced by others to ensure better outcomes for all. Further, understanding that we need to care for those in vastly different situations meant that we all had a better chance of surviving the pandemic. Peter, in his First Letter to a marginalised Church, said, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind”(1 Peter 3:8). For months, we have successfully united to fight a common enemy, we need now to unite in love for one another to fight the enemies of hatred and injustice.
We need to see everyone in this Country for what they are – as a brother or sister in Christ. Peeling back the layers, we share more similarities than differences. We are one and need to ‘rebuild’ on a foundation of unity, honesty, and care for one another. Let us tell our young people the truth about the history of our Country so that we can begin to heal and emerge as a better society.
2.Continue to empower and acknowledge the dignity and worth of individuals, created equally in the image of God, through the extension of assistance schemes and the provision of a living wage.
Just as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture values and utilises the skills, gifts and experiences of individuals, a pillar of Catholic Social Teaching is recognising that each person possesses an inherent and immeasurable worth and dignity. Further, we, as Catholics have a responsibility to maintain and nurture that worth.
Via the JobKeeper/JobSeeker initiatives, the Government provided *most people a living stipend. An individual’s worth to society was decoupled from the dollar and provided them with an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families without a series of dehumanising and demoralising stipulations.
(*most: Migrants and Refugees on Temporary Protection Visas were excluded from both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes. In May 2020, NATSICC joined 50 other Catholic Organisations and wrote to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, pleading for help on behalf of the ones we saw as being abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic)
An unexpected benefit was that the payments eased the load on community-based charities, many of whom experienced a marked decrease in requests for food and other necessities. People were provided with the resources to provide for themselves and their families, and charities were able to refocus their efforts on proactive and preventative programs.
By providing broadened and accessible financial assistance packages to those in need, the stigma around helping the less fortunate was subsequently eroded as we were forced to think outside of our own bubble. Suddenly the possibility of needing assistance was very real to all and layers of emotional insulation were pared back by the realisation that ‘it could happen to me’. We were all in the same boat, floating along the same river and lacking control over the destination.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods estimated that the JobKeeper/JobSeeker Schemes lowered the number of people in poverty by 32%. Importantly, it found that the additional support also flattened out poverty across the wealth spectrum with only modestly lower poverty in higher wealth households compared to lower wealth households. The resultant redistribution of wealth is something to which we should aspire. We are reminded of the words of John the Baptist – “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:10-11).
3. All Australians should acknowledge, in our actions and in legislation, that Elders/Old People are valuable and contributing members of society and that we are responsible to care for and love them – just as they did for us.
Major COVID-19 outbreaks and loss of life in Aged Care Facilities triggered lockdowns and restrictions across Australia. With the passing of our Elders / Old people, we also lost their stories and their knowledge. The term ‘Old People’ is used in the Torres Strait Islands (and some Aboriginal Communities) in the same way that ‘Elder’ is used in Aboriginal Culture – and it is how we express and show our love, respect and reverence for those that cared for us and guided us through our youth.
Although we lamented our inability to visit our Elders/Old People, we adhered to the rules to keep them safe. Newborns were presented to matriarchs and patriarchs via Zoom or introduced at a distance and through the safety and separation of windowpanes.
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, supported by State and Territory Governments, closed their borders to all but essential workers to protect our Elders/Old People and Custodians of Culture and Knowledge. Early action prevented the virus from ravaging our people who are already suffering from poor health, and in many areas a lack of healthcare facilities and resources.
We all placed an emphasis on ensuring the safety of our old people.
As we move into a time where Euthanasia / Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) is being debated and potentially legislated in Parliaments across the Country, we want the same level of compassion and care for our Elders / Old People that we strived to employ during COVID-19 to be applied post COVID-19. Culturally, First Nations People are conditioned and taught to cherish our Elders and Old People. We are horrified at the concept that those most at risk – the Elderly, the poor, the sick – are somehow seen as less valuable and a burden on Society. Catholic Social Teaching again echoes this sentiment, and we are all called to cherish, protect, and serve those in most need – “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Rather than legislate the ability to end the lives of those at the end stages of their lives, NATSICC advocates the need for more advanced, compassionate, and authentic Palliative Care that considers not only physical wellbeing, but also spiritual wellbeing. In 2020, we displayed our love for our Elders and Old People and their inherent value to us as a Society by the measures we put in place to protect them. It is concerning to us that VAD sends a very different message to our Elders and Old People, a message that might be construed as their lives being a burden for others. Bishop Tim Harris, Bishop of Townsville, in his November 2019 Homily articulates this well:
“I further fear that the elderly and frail and people with disabilities and other chronic conditions may feel pressured to prematurely end their lives. Who would have thought such a possibility has been raised, but I am afraid when society provides a ‘way out’ – a quick death – then anything is possible.”
On average, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders / Old People die earlier than non-Indigenous Australians and we need to ensure that improved and Culturally informed health outcomes remain a priority of Federal and State and Territory health providers. In 2021 and beyond, Australia will be a better place if we embrace our old people, love them, seek out their knowledge and stories and thank them for toil of their youth by providing them with every opportunity to contribute and experience the continuing journey of their lives.
4. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gifts, skills, and knowledge to be utilised for the betterment of First Nations Peoples and Australia as a whole.
The Blackdog Institute’s Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19: The Australian context states that between 25-33% of the community experiences high levels of anxiety, stress, worry, anger, and uncertainty during pandemics. Many of these symptoms may be attributable to isolation, financial uncertainty, concern for self and family, diminishment of self-worth due to unemployment and loss of hope.
As a contemporary Western Society, it is time to realise and acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have experienced these same symptoms (due to a very different cause), not for months, but for generation after generation since colonisation. The associated and subsequent outcomes are evident in all socio-economic and health metrics experienced by Australia’s First Nations Peoples. Through all these struggles, and against all odds, we have maintained our systems of kinship, our relationship with the land and some of our languages to remain the oldest continuing Culture in the world.
Our gifts of acceptance, tenacity, perseverance, and faith in a Greater Being are what we want to share with Australia and what we want Australians to embrace. These attributes are evident in every line of the Uluru Statement; they are embedded in the very fibre of Community-led Organisations that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and are evident when we conduct cross cultural learning to help others better understand our point of view.
In times of struggle, we have always come together to cry, laugh, explain, and console. Our burdens are shared throughout our communities and our unique extended families.
As we enter 2021 with a sense of hope and ‘rebirth’ we ask that, for the first time in post-colonial history, Australians stand together to lift one another up. Stand alongside the Traditional Custodian. Stand alongside the migrant striving for a better life. Stand alongside the grandmother that has lived through so much. We are much stronger, and much better when we are together.
NAIDOC Week runs from 4 to 11 July.
With thanks to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC).