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Bringing pandemic aid to remote communities

November 10th, 2020

The small towns dot the map of south-west Western Australia - Ongerup, Mount Barker, Katanning, Gnowangerup, Tambellup-Broomehill, Kojonup, Denmark, Jerramungup, Manjimup, Cranbrook. Many of the towns are isolated, a remote constellation, vast distances from the cities, spread across almost 5000kms.

SAC found ways to collaborate with organisations to make sure the basic food supplies were available for the community. SAC staff had them delivered to the doorstep to make sure the risk of social contamination within the community was low.

When a pandemic hits these towns, the social issues that beset some of these communities, become more compelling and challenging.

How do you get basic help and support to the local Noongar elders who are unable to travel? What do you do about the shortage of food in some of these areas when the threat of COVID-19 makes travelling a dangerous option?

Last month, the Fremantle Foundation gave a $25,000 grant to the Southern Aboriginal Corporation (SAC) to help alleviate those very problems.

The SAC was established in 1983 and represents 3,900 Noongar people, who have lived in south-west Western Australia for 45,000 years.

The Corporation’s role encompasses health, recreation, employment, education and training whilst promoting social and cultural values. The SAC also owns 77 units of affordable housing for Noongar people. In the words of the Foundation, the SAC acts as “the glue’’ between the communities within its huge area.

For SAC CEO Asha Bhat, the challenges to the local communities have been particularly acute this year. And there is no immediate hope of a change.

“Some Noongars are struggling to pay their utilities bills and things like that and …not being able to pay has a huge impact during the COVID crisis,’’ she says.

In some of the remote towns, older Noongar residents couldn’t travel to shop. Others had to deal with limited stocks – one toilet roll a family – in the early days of the pandemic.

The SAC bought a ute to help distribute food parcels, hygiene packs and care packages across its communities. Foodbank WA and another service provider Chorus – which donated frozen meals to Aboriginals aged over 50– helped out. More than 900 food parcels were eventually distributed.

Like most places in the world, basic household items were in short supply. SAC organised for a donation of 400 toilet roll packs to be distributed throughout the community.

Separate COVID-19 support funding from the Minderoo Foundation also helped with food pack distribution, grocery vouchers and sports packs to Noongars across the central Great Southern Region.

It all points to a new model of collaboration, that helped SAC reach the vulnerable spread across such huge distances with vital help during the crisis.

The level of co-operation also means that the Fremantle Foundation grant can be used to help with some of the other consequences of COVID-19 – the mental health and social impacts.

“We’ll undertake community consultation and we’re looking at doing some early intervention activities, such as helping with mental health messages, complementing what we’re already doing…with our family violence legal program, for example, and increase the awareness about family violence,’’ Asha says. “That’s one of the things that we found in the COVID time - family violence numbers escalated. And the impact of that we’re seeing now, because they have turned in to legal cases.’’

Asha is also mindful of the potential impact of changes to the JobSeeker program on the SAC’s communities. “We know that the JobSeeker payment is less now and it’s going to end in March, so there will be some issue with cessation of all this funding,’’ Asha says. “We want to support Aboriginal people in early intervention and prevention areas and also in emergency relief funding.’’

Oscar Colbung, SAC’s Family Violence Prevention Legal Service manager, said there was some fear among the Noongar community in the early days of the virus. “I think that made them more conscious of their actions,’’ he said.

“We had a group of people across a number of communities who are affected by drugs and alcohol and they never held any fear for anything and they were going out wherever they wanted to, without any conscience about the spread of the virus. It had a big impact on the elderly people in the community and other members of the community, so much so that we raised it with relevant government agencies that they weren’t doing enough,’’ Oscar says. “We took it upon ourselves to get out there in the community to talk about the seriousness of the virus and the impact it has and the risk.’’

SAC collaborated with Foodbank WA to supply food hampers to all Noongar households in the Great Southern region.
Being able to provide doorstep delivery meant that vulnerable people didn’t have to spend time in high-risk places – further supporting the health and wellbeing of the community at crucial times.
Hand sanitiser was in short supply, but Asha found a way to make sure the community had access to it when they most needed it.

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