White apathy 'is killing Aborigines'

Australia/ native population ravaged by 'Third World' diseases

LITTLE has changed at Wallaby Camp since an Australian government minister visited the Aboriginal settlement a year ago and shocked the nation by describing it as "not fit for humans". Likening this and other Aboriginal camps in the Northern Territory to those of "a war-ravaged African nation", Graham Richardson, the former minister for health, said then: "This cannot be tolerated in 1990s Australia. I suspect it shouldn't have been tolerated in 1890s Australia."

When I arrived at Wallaby Camp on the outskirts of the town of Katherine, there were still no houses. Tony, a distinguished-looking tribal elder with a grey beard, and his 20-odd companions slept and cooked on the ground. Since the minister's visit catapulted Wallaby Camp into the headlines, the authorities have installed a single tap, giving the people their first water supply, and two portable lavatories, but nothing else. Treating the camp dwellers as squatters, the white-run Katherine town council had tried to move them on, but Tony told me defiantly: "I'm staying here."

Katherine is at the front line of one of Australia's worst public scandals, the deplorable state of its Aborigines' health. The issue has been overshadowed recently by big political strides on other fronts, such as the Aborigines' victory in their 200-year battle to win recognition by the High Court and the Australian parliament of native title to their traditional lands.

Earlier this year Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, brought the health story into the open before a gathering of world leaders at the UN Social Development summit in Copenhagen. "Many Aboriginal Australians live in communities whose unconscionable standards of health have long defied the efforts of governments to improve them," he said. "It is a situation we must change."

Ringing in the Prime Minister's ears was an official Australian report which had condemned the outcome of a strategy launched in 1989 by the federal and state governments aimed at bringing Aborigines' health up to the same standard as the rest of Australia by 2001. After millions of dollars had been poured into the strategy, the report found that it had failed completely.

Its most damning finding was to compare Aborigines' health with that of indigenous populations in other industrialised nations such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand. While the health standards of those native peoples had improved over the past two decades to the point where they were approaching the national average, the health gap between black and white Australians had become worse.

Life expectancy for Aborigines is almost 20 years less than for non-Aborigines, and is more akin to that in to Third World countries. Diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis, which white Australia conquered long ago, are still killing Aborigines at alarming rates. "In the year 2000, when Sydney hosts the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world will be on Australia," the report declared. "The amount of progress made between now and then will have a significant bearing on Australia's reputation."

It will be a herculean task. And, if the latest fears of some health workers come about, yet another epidemic, Aids, will have taken hold of Northern Territory Aborigines by that historic year. Up to now, remoteness has saved them from the influx of HIV which has swept through Africa and parts of South-east Asia. But Frank Bowden, head of the Aids unit in the Northern Territory Department of Health, believes a time bomb is about to hit. He predicts that one in five Territory Aborigines could be infected with HIV by 2005.

He bases his forecast on the fact that Aborigines suffer the same conditions which helped the disease to spread in Africa and Asia: poor general health, crowded and unsanitary housing and high rates of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) whose presence facilitiates HIV taking hold. The STD rate for Northern Territory Aborigines is already five times greater than for the rest of Australia. But Aborigines, who comprise a quarter of the territory's population, are not alone; among all Territory people, the STD rates are 25 times greater than average.

Already, eight territory Aborigines have tested HIV positive. "It may be small, but it's the beginning of an epidemic which is ripe to spread quickly," Dr Bowden told me. "No leap of the imagination is necessary. We have to cover a sexual network here which spreads across a million square miles. We are dealing with the sickest population in Australia, and one of the only indigenous populations in the world where health standards are falling. Things are worse today than 10 years ago in life expectancy, respiratory infections and general morbidity."

Many communities have never recovered from their historic land dispossession and the disastrous diets of junk Western foods and alcohol which followed. Federal and state governments have bickered for years over responsibility for Aboriginal health, with the result that billions have been wasted through duplication and inefficiency. But why, I asked a Territory doctor, is black health still so inexcusably bad? "There's no electoral penalty for ignoring it," he replied grimly. "There are no votes in it."

It was a chilling analysis, but I realised what he meant when I drove 150 miles north of Alice Springs to Ti Tree, headquarters of the Anmatjere community of 1,250 people. Some live 15 to a house with inadequate power, water and sewerage. Trachoma, non-existent among whites, is prevalent among the schoolchildren, and many older people have chronic eye scarring from the disease. Compared to white Australia, the remote Anmatjere people's access to health services is minimal. They have a clinic with a nurse, but get only infrequent visits from a doctor.

The Anmatjere people want to emulate other black communities by setting up their own health service and employing their own doctors. About 10 such independent health services have blossomed in the Territory in recent years, many of them initiated and run by Aboriginal women fed up by the failure of white Australia to stop the rot. They have helped to bring some hope: a decline in Aboriginal infant mortality rates (still almost four time higher than for non-Aborigines) and in deaths from alcohol and heart disease.

But Stephanie Bell, director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, an Alice Springs-based independent health service, wonders just how sincere are the protestations of Mr Keating and his ministers. "The government rhetoric has changed over the years, but the reality remains the same," she said. "Most Aborigines don't reach the secondary or tertiary stages of health care because they end up dead from curable diseases which this country hasn't seen in white society since colonial times."

Suggested Topics
Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone