In Galiwin’ku, a remote Aboriginal community in north-east Arnhem Land, for most of the pandemic COVID-19 has been very far away.
There have been no recorded community COVID-19 cases in the whole of East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory.
Like many COVID-free pockets of Australia, the vaccine rollout there was initially slow, hampered by misinformation and hesitancy.
But a dedicated team of local Aboriginal health workers worked hard to fix it and did.
Only accessible by air or boat, the island community of Galiwin’ku is 520 kilometres away from Darwin and home to about 2,000 people.
In recent weeks and months, vaccination rates have turned around in Galiwin’ku and the overall Miwatj health region.
The Aboriginal-controlled health service delivers healthcare and vaccines to more than 6,000 people across East Arnhem land through its seven remote clinics in communities including Milingimbi, Galiwin’ku and Yirrkala.
The rates are now encouragingly high — the overall Miwatj region has now hit 81 per cent first dose, outpacing the Indigenous vaccination rate nationally, which is at 74 per cent first dose for those over 16.
Across Australia, COVID outbreaks have triggered localised spikes in vaccination rates.
More recently in the Northern Territory, Binjari and neighbouring Rockhole, which initially had very low vaccine coverage, reached 100 per cent first dose rate during the most recent COVID cluster.
A serious scare and extensive surge resources were needed to achieve that — but as the East Arnhem communities show, it is possible to achieve very good results without COVID circulating in the community.
Language is key
For Mr Yambalpal, the key to getting people to get the jab is information in language.
“Yolngu people understand their language,” he said.
Yolngu Matha is the language spoken on Galiwin’ku and by thousands of people in Arnhem Land.
Mr Yambalpal said it still takes time for people to make their decision but speaking to local residents in Yolngu Matha has been the crucial way to help them understand.
Galiwin’ku has now hit 70 per cent first dose, with more than 1,000 doses delivered in the last five weeks.
In Yirrkala, about 140 kilometres south-east of Elcho Island on the mainland, Miwatj Strong Women Worker Sally Maymuru also found that speaking to people in language was a big help.
“I just told them straight in my language, you know.”
Going from house to house works
In Galiwin’ku, the Miwatj vaccine teams have been spending a lot of their time driving between houses in a four-wheel drive that’s been called the Vaxy Taxi to speak with families who are hesitant or still deciding about the vaccine.
In Yirrkala, Ms Maymuru said visiting people at home on different occasions worked well.
“I’m really proud because I came up to like 20 people in a house, and they don’t even want it,” she said.
She said she went back to the same house a few days later, at around the same time that there were new COVID cases found in Katherine, which is about 570 kilometres south-west of Yirrkala.
“And now, all of these people have been coming in and ringing up.”
Yirrkala has a first dose rate of 93 per cent while 81 per cent of the community is fully vaccinated.
Data from Miwatj Health shows more vaccine doses were actually delivered in Yirrkala before the onset of the recent Katherine-Robinson River cluster, but clinic manager Linda Harrison said outbreaks elsewhere in the NT often had an impact on those more hesitant.
“Each time there’s been a bit of a lockdown, there’s been a bit of a surge in people coming and asking for the vaccines definitely,” Ms Harrison said.
Linking in with local services and incentives
Other strategies that helped in Galiwin’ku included partnering with community programs like at the local school and footy trainings and running community meetings with doctors.
In Yirrkala, local organisations like the Art Centre and the local council also donated money for store vouchers for people who had their vaccine, which Yirrkala clinic manager Linda Harrison said was a help.
Extra government support in Galiwin’ku, like additional vaccinators from the Royal Flying Doctors Service, helped immunisations continue alongside normal primary health care.
But at the same time, Ms Harrison said having staff known to the community is a big plus.
“I think that’s one of the big things.”
‘We don’t give up’
Galiwin’ku Aboriginal Health Practitioner Wanamula Gondarra said the turnaround in attitudes towards the vaccine, driven by the promotion work of her and her colleagues, has been a total relief.
“It’s amazing what’s been happening.”
“Our people are really wanting to get the vaccine now, and it’s what we’ve been waiting for, working for months,” she said.
But she said there is still more work to be done, to make sure everyone comes back for their second dose and to convince those people who still haven’t decided.
“They don’t have to accept us, but the work and education is still going forward to them,” Wanamula Gondarra said.