Impact of Injustice on Indigenous Australian Health

Indigenous health continue to be in a woeful state in Australia. In late August, a young Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, died in police custody in Western Australia due to lack of basic health services. She was arrested for not paying a fine. She had a blister that seems to have become infected, and she was vomiting and screaming in pain for hours. Plus she had fractured ribs. She pleaded with police to be taken to hospital. The police ignored her pleas: “when the cops finally took her to hospital they were laughing and saying she was acting.” She died in hospital.

More recently, an inquest has begun into the death of, Stanley Lord, an Indigenous Australian man who died in custody early last year for a similarly petty issue. He was serving 18 months for driving while disqualified. At the time of his arrest, he was not driving drunk nor was he arrested for reckless driving. He suffered a heart attack in jail after a delay in getting him adequate healthcare, having being resuscitated five times before being taken to hospital.

The argument that Indigenous people should follow the law does nothing to address the inequity of over-policing of Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous Australians are not jailed at the same rate for similar misdemeanour offences. Paying fines is difficult for Australia’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable. It should not cost them their lives.

Indigenous health has made little progress due to poor health policies. Indigenous life expectancy is 10 years lower than other Australians, and they are significantly worse off economically and socially. Indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas face even more problems, as they lack basic access to social and health services. Two-thirds of Indigenous Australians die before the age of 75, compared with only 19% of the rest of the population. They are dying from preventable diseases like lung and cardiovascular diseases and fractures. Ten percent of Indigenous Australians have diabetes, which is three times the rate of the rest of the nation.

Indigenous Australian women are 31 times more likely to be victims of violence (and perpetrators are no more likely to be Indigenous). Indigenous women’s imprisonment rate has increased by 15%. Similarly, Indigenous men are disproportionately incarcerated for offences that are treated more leniently for non-Indigenous Australians.

Health writer Kelly Briggs (also known as @TheKooriWoman) recently attended The Mental Health Services Conference. She notes that social policy change is needed to address how health programs are conceived and administered. This means not blaming patients and victims and not dictating health advice that is culturally and socially insensitive. Instead, Briggs discusses the  ‘Looking Forward Project,’ which has involved the Nyoongar people in the south-east metropolitan region of Perth. Indigenous-led programs and policies are the only way forward to reverse the adverse health outcomes among Indigenous people.

Ultimately, adverse health outcomes stem from intergenerational trauma and other reverberations of colonisation. Decolonisation of the justice system and other social institutions is the best way to improve wellbeing and life expectancy of Indigenous people.

This post was first published on Google+.