Indigenous Sovereignty and Responses to COVID-19

People march during the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. One man holds up a sign. Another person holds up a large Aboriginal flag

In Episode 2 of Race in Society, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are joined by Jill Gallagher, Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), who are leading COVID-19 pandemic responses in Victoria. She discusses how the pandemic amplifies existing health and social inequalities. Also on the panel is sociologist, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who is Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University, and author of countless critical race books, including, The White Possessive‘. She demonstrates how her theorisation of Aboriginal sovereignty disrupts how the pandemic is currently understood. Finally, we also speak with sociologist Dr Debbie Bargallie, Senior research fellow at Griffith University, and author of the excellent new release, ‘Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service.’ She talks about how Aboriginal people are excluded from social policy, which has compounded poor decision-making on public health during the pandemic.

Jill Gallagher

First, Jill Gallagher talks about what Indigenous sovereignty means to VACCHO and the importance of Aboriginal-controlled health organisations, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. Jill is an Aboriginal woman from Western Victoria, who people are the Gunditjmara people. In 2019, her mob in Western Victoria ensured one of their major landscapes, Budj Bim, was recognised on the World Heritage listing.

Jill discusses how sovereignty in the health sector encompasses the social determinants of health. That is, not simply the clinical view of what health is, but also a recognition of Aboriginal people’s pride in their identity, and that they belong to the oldest living culture on the planet. Jill says: “Sovereignty was never ceded, so, I believe that we still have sovereignty.”

Jill notes that Aboriginal people have faced ongoing oppression and human rights abuses since colonisation, for over 230 years, and that this abuse is ongoing. She cites a VicHealth study, which has shown that 98% of Aboriginal people still experience racism in the healthcare system. She describes how Aboriginal-controlled health organisations have been doing extensive work for many decades to improve health outcomes. COVID-19 has merely made this inequity visible in Australia and around the world.

Jill Gallagher's picture is on the top left-handside. She is an Aboriginal woman with long dark hair. The quote reads: "“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inequality on a global platform. Aboriginal communities... have played a vital role in this space, not only in relation to being visible on our landscape, but very earlier on in this pandemic, when it first started, one of the biggest challenges for all of us, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, was access to PPE [personal protective equipment].”

Jill talks about how Aboriginal-controlled health organisations responded swiftly to COVID-19, in spite of inadequate funding and poor recognition of the unique expertise that Aboriginal people hold.

The current figures for Victoria, in the Victorian Aboriginal community, we have 65 confirmed [COVID-19] cases in the Victorian Aboriginal communities. 90% of that 65, they’re all ages between 16 and 44. So it is really, really concerning. The importance of Aboriginal organisations is not only in combating and trying to keep the numbers low in the Victorian Aboriginal community. It is about the contact-tracing. I think the current figures is 58,000 Aboriginal people that live in Victoria. So we’re a minority within the state, and our organisations are so better placed to know where Uncle Fred went last week or how to contact Uncle Fred. He’s probably gone up to the next town. So we know our mob who are transient. We know how to get hold of them. So that contact-tracing, which hasn’t been utilised to the best of its ability, lies within the Aboriginal organisations.

Jill Gallagher

Aileen Moreton-Robinson

We asked Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson to reflect on her theorisation of Indigenous sovereignty and how her approach might assist us in making sense of the public discussions of race in relation to the Coronavirus. Aileen says”

Indigenous sovereignty doesn’t come out of the same epistome that we’re dealing with with the pandemic, for starters. Okay? In one sense, Indigenous sovereignty is about being in and of the land. It is fundamentally about relationships with created beings. It’s far more complex, I guess, than time will allow me to articulate. But it is not a sovereignty that is born of rights, or it is not a sovereignty that is born through the logic of capital. So it’s not a sovereignty that comes out of the Westphalian idea, and it is not a product of the Enlightenment, right? So the way in which we’re dealing with the pandemic is fundamentally within those logics of trying to bring order, which is what the whole kind of edifice of knowledge production during the Enlightenment did. It wanted to bring order and, of course, the body as one of the main things to discipline and govern.

Professor Aileen Moreton Robinson

Aileen notes that the idea that the pandemic can be controlled through policing is aligned with Westphalian logic (that states have total sovereignty over their territory]. This underpins the health policy response taken in Australia – most harshly in Victoria, where police presence, fines and militarised quarantine has been extensively used on Black and Brown people. Aboriginal sovereignty would not take such a repsonse, because Aboriginal people recognise their relationship with Mother Nature, and that the natural world cannot be controlled.

Aileen explains that the policing response to the pandemic, which forcibly locked down racialised people, is predictable in a society like Australia, which operates through racial logic. “What the pandemic does is, basically, bring a sharper focus to the way which that inequality is functioning within society.”

Aileen Moreton-Robinson's photo is on the top right hand corner. She is an Aboriginal woman smiling, and sitting on a lounge chair. The quote reads: "One could've even predicted a whole heap of things, in terms of race, as to what's actually occurred [during COVID-19]... The racial logics that play are predictable. And that's the sad fact about what's occurred. Australia still refuses to own the fact that race is absolutely fundamental to the way in which this society operates"

Debbie Bargallie

Dr Debbie Bargallie is a Kamilaroi-Wonnarua woman from northwest New South Wales. She talks about COVID-19 and the relevance of her new book, “Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service.”

The racial contract is a theory developed by Charles Mills, a Jamaican philosopher. It’s a conceptual and abstract way of thinking. The racial contract is an invisible contract between those who are categorised as white over non-white or, in the Australian context, non-Indigenous over Indigenous. The purpose of the contract or the racial contract is to maintain the status quo, so not only does it privilege and advantage whites but it’s run by whites for the benefit of white people. My research unmasks the racial contract operationalised in the Australian Public Service, exposing the business-as-usual racisms and the masquerade of meritocracy that I’m saying bolsters lots and cements white advantage.

Debbie Bargallie

Debbie talks about her analysis of the public service, which ensures race relations benefit only white people. This is enacted through policies and everyday practices. The majority of Indigenous people in the public sector are kept in junior roles due to racial discrimination. Only 1.2% of the public sector’s senior leaders are Indigenous. This means that social policy and decision-making is designed to exclude Indigenous expertise and knowledge. Even policies that address Indigenous issues are largely ruled by non-Indigenous people, and therefore do not benefit or reflect the interests of Indigenous communities. This carries into how the pandemic has been managed. Indigenous people are most at risk from infection, and yet they have only been approached by Government after Indigenous organisations had already effectively responded to the pandemic.

Debbie Bargallie is an Aboriginal woman with short light hair. Her photo is in the top right hand corner.  The quote reads: "I understand that the Australian government has been working in conjunction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to develop and implement tailored, culturally appropriate, evidence-based responses to COVID-19. But why does it take a crisis for government to operate this way?"

Black Lives Matter protests

Our guests discussed the purpose of the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia, which were organised by Aboriginal people to bring attention to the ongoing issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The protests happened at the height of the pandemic. Police, politicians and right wing media heavily critiqued their timing. However, Aboriginal people have positioned this issue as a public health matter for many decades, given the prevelance of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Aboriginal people are either killed by police during routine interactions, at the time of arrest, or because they are denied access to medical care while in custody.

Some mainstream media wrongly blamed the protests for the spread of the virus, even though health officials publicly showed that no infections resulted from the protests.

Our guests discuss the important role that Aboriginal women played in organising the protests, and in ensuring that the public was kept safe. Jill reflects on the external pressue she experienced to condemn the protests, to which she did not relent. Aileen notes that the Aboriginal women organisers are acting in the tradition of Aboriginal women warriors who came before them. Debbie talks about how there has never been an ideal time to protest. If Aboriginal people waited for the state to approve their organising, the success and progress Aboriginal people have achieved would never happen.

This was a nuanced discussion with many reflections that I’ve pondered deeply since filming. I urge you to watch our video to dive deeper into the wisdom, scholarship and practice of these three spectacular women.