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Storylines: Surviving a pandemic in the colony

♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

Thomas Mayor in Brunswick Heads in 2018 promoting the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Photo supplied.

This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

Thomas Mayor

As the COVID-19 virus became pandemic, in Australia, the strange phenomenon of toilet paper hoarding began. I have been bewildered watching people rushing to shopping centres, going toe to toe, desperately fighting for paper to wipe their arse. I thought, what about food? The first thing I stocked up on was rice! As a Torres Strait Islander, with Phillipino and Dayak great-grandfathers who married in the Torres Strait in the early 20th century pearling boom, there are few meals my family enjoys without rice.

The toilet paper, and a measure of our societal maturity, were the first Australian casualties in the current pandemic. The madness in the shopping centres was an early indicator that the leaders of the nation would need to step up. But as with the bushfire crisis, they did not. The state of Australia’s politics – the lack of courageous and visionary leadership – should be a great concern for all of us in these times.

Leadership failure deadly

The lack of leadership from the Federal government will be unnecessarily fatal to the elderly and most vulnerable. From all indications, and perhaps as this article is published, we are almost certain to see many of their lives lost to the pandemic, but it didn’t need to be this way in Australia. Many of us have been watching the reports from China, the United States and Italy. We know that Australia has had an opportunity to prevent an outbreak. The government has had the chance to prepare.

But while the government was spending more time denying the impending dangers – putting the profitability of donors and a Hillsong Conference before the people – confusion has reigned and some of us have just done what we could. For example, wharfies, as members of the Maritime Union of Australia, have been fighting since early February to ensure that ships arriving in Australian ports, in under fourteen days, from countries affected by COVID-19 are screened by a qualified medical officer, rather than allowing the ship’s master and crew to self-assess. We continue to be vigilant with no support from the employers. Yet even last week, as the confirmed cases in Australia exploded, Scott Morrison was smugly brushing off the urgency of the situation. His handling of national emergencies is consistent – unfortunately. He has been absent when needed the most.

Lack of government devastating First Nations people

For First Nations people, the health crisis is not new. Starvation, impoverishment, poor sanitation, and third world living conditions have existed since Captain Cook opened the floodgates to colonisation two hundred and fifty years ago. Though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders resisted, and have fought back, in our remote communities there remains little in the way of medical facilities and support.

When COVID-19 hits remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the outcome will be devastating. There already exists an epidemic of chronic disease – diabetes, heart, and lung disease – that will cause Indigenous people in our communities to be more likely to contract the virus, and almost certainly to die from it in far greater numbers.

When the virus hits a community, there are few ways to self-isolate, living in an overcrowded home where your very existence depends on those around you. The virus will spread quickly, and there will be nowhere to go. There are no morgues for the dead. There will be no help from the big cities, or towns that are already inundated with the sick and the dead.

Uluru Statement from the Heart

The Uluru Statement from the Heart contains the nationwide consensus that First Nations reached at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention in May 2017. The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice in the constitution (a representative body to with a guaranteed voice to parliament); and a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations (treaties), and truth-telling to the nation.

The Morrison government has been warned. Indigenous politicians, peak organisations and leaders have called on the powers that be to provide the support to the communities who will need it the most. But will they be heard?

This week, the parliament sat to implement legislation for the emergency situation. I remind readers of the campaign to see a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution (as the unprecedented 2017 Indigenous consensus called for, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart). It has yet to happen – and I reaffirm that we need all Australians to walk with us to achieve this visionary statement, because if we did have it, right now, I would be reassured that the parliament would hear us in this current pandemic. I am sure that for their inaction on COVID-19, we will need to hold them to account for all the lives that will be lost.


Thomas Mayor. Photo supplied.

Author bio

Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander, a wharfie and union official for the Maritime Union of Australia and a signatory of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Thomas has tirelessly advocated for the proposals in the Uluru Statement, and is the author of Finding the Heart of the Nation – the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth, published by Hardie Grant. His book tells his story, the story of the Uluru Statement and the remarkable people that he met on his campaigning journey. A children’s version of the book will be published in June 2020.


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6 responses to “Storylines: Surviving a pandemic in the colony”

  1. Ginga says:

    Thank you Thomas! So much in this one piece…appreciate your voice.

    Blessings & love

  2. I agree with you. I am astounded that the Government hasn’t been more pro-active in defending this island nation from the corona virus ever getting in!
    All passengers arriving from overseas should have undergone temperature scanning weeks ago! It’s so easy at that point…all arrivals being channelled through customs and security. As we saw in other countries. Why wasn’t this practice initiated then?
    Why wasn’t the screening of everybody coming through done then?
    Only the other day, a contact of ours arrived home from South Africa, not sure if it was Gold Coast or Brisbane airports and was asked if he had a fever? Asked!
    Is that Australia’s defence protocol? How irresponsible is that? What sort of leadership is that?
    Now look how far it has infiltrated the country!

  3. Ill fares the land says:

    Thank you. I agree with you, even if for no other reason, than our mutual antipathy towards one of the biggest instances of a PM being an abject failure as PM. But your other points are absolutely valid and point to how Scotty from Marketing is completely unable to separate his actions from his ideology. It would be unfair to suggest he is doing nothing, but in truth, he is having a whale of a time “reading from his script”; trying to sound statesmanlike (he is no statesman) and display leadership (he is no leader either- he is just in charge and the two are very different). Ignoring the plight of Australia’s indigenous – unsurprising really, as he and his government have form on that topic He is not the only one who ignored the calls for cruise ship screening, but it is typical of him that he did ignore those calls. It is the meanness of mind and spirit, despite his alleged Christian faith that makes it difficult, if not impossible for him to turn to the views of others unless he can claim their ideas as his own and when it is someone or something he ideologically despises (e.g., unions) – the classic trait of one who is out of their depth in their professional role. That is why he has kept Albanese out of his “crisis cabinet” – he can’t abide taking onboard the suggestions of his political opponent, who he treats as his enemy. When this is over, he wants to be able to hog the spotlight and like Trump would and does, claim the credit for himself.

  4. Yes Thomas, I am growing even older while
    waiting on them to get their act together.
    Only full testing of the population will make
    a difference & hopefully save lives. Thank
    you for speaking out.

  5. Diana Jo Faith says:

    Thank you Thomas for the outstanding work you do. Many people in Australia now walk with First Nation Peoples to achieve Constitutional Rights. We will get to the top of the mountain as a united force for change. The current epidemic of the Corana virus is truly revealing the nature of the greed driven Neo-Liberal class of politicians. Take care and blessings to all.

  6. lll fares the land….. indeed quackery rules the land
    & trying to live through it is a nightmare. I wonder
    how many others feel being repelled & trapped by
    an organisation pretending to be a government,
    mandated & inept? I suppose we deserve what we
    have allowed into our lives. The ballot-box was
    a game too many fell for. Voters did not think it
    through. Laziness is a dangerous lucky-dip. Do
    not fall for The Salesman again.

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