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Navigating COVID-19 social distancing rules for Aboriginal people

Navigating COVID-19 social distancing rules for Aboriginal people

By Dr Michael Doyle, Public Health Association of Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Special Interest Group Co-convener

As the Coronavirus situation continues, we all need to do our part with physical distancing and limiting outdoor activity. At the time of writing the ‘curve’ of infections is indeed flattening. But our individual, family and community efforts need to continue if we are to avoid a public health crisis from COVID-19.

These efforts are largely self-regulated, with people generally doing the right thing on their own. The police are enforcing these important public health guidelines in some cases, notably in public places.

But are police activities in enforcing restrictions being applied equally, without any racial discrimination? There were continuing reports about unequal policing in respect of Aboriginal people before COVID-19, so it is not surprising there are reports of the same problems during the community policing of COVID-19 public health orders.

To illustrate the issue, let’s look at a (pre-COVID) media report in February headlined ‘Aboriginal drivers in WA more likely to get fines from police officers than traffic cameras’. A review of police data showed that Aboriginal drivers were 1.75 times more likely than the WA population average to be issued a fine in roadside incidents where an actual police officer pulled over the speeding driver. Yet in cases where automated cameras were clocking driver speed and triggering fines, there was no statically significant difference between the number of fines for Aboriginal drivers compared to any other driver.

The obvious inference to explain this disparity is that at roadside incidents, police officers were more likely to give infringement notices to Aboriginal drivers, and less likely to simply caution them, than non-Aboriginal drivers. Moreover, given that based on physical appearance alone many Aboriginal people would not have been apparent as such to officers, the striking statistical difference must be driven by an even greater disparity of treatment of drivers whose appearance does identify them as Aboriginal.

This example is not related to COVID-19 public health order policing, but it does show a precedence for disparity in the use of discretion by police officers. There are undoubtably issues of racism in Australia’s justice system, and while it would be unfair and untrue to say that all police engage in racist discrimination, an issue of unconscious bias may be at play.

The speed with which the public health regulatory response to COVID-19 has been mounted has been impressive, and is currently showing very welcome results in terms of containing the spread of disease, benefiting all Australians. But the pandemic could still develop ‘second waves’ or local outbreaks. Local outbreaks in locations with significant Indigenous communities would be devastating because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people they already have poorer health and less resources than most other Australians. So, protective measures certainly need to be continued.

But there needs to be clarity of what social distancing rules all people must follow, and officials need to maintain public confidence the police are enforcing the social distancing laws in an equitable way. A key part of the problem is that police are empowered to exercise discretion in overlooking infringing behaviour, and such discretion can very easily be exercised inequitably, without any effective means of accountability or recourse.

In New South Wales people can be fined $1,000 for breaching these rules. In one case reported in the press a 15-year old boy was fined for going to visit a friend. This might seem a straightforward case but, 15-year olds are allowed to go to school with several hundred other children, so they might be a bit confused about social distancing rules outside the school yard. Greater clarity and consistent messaging would help.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Australians strongly value regular contact with family and friends. At present it is clearly harder to stay in touch with family and mob. Some of us can use online platforms like Zoom to maintain contact with family and friends, but that is assuming we have wifi at home, or has enough credit on our mobile phone. For socio-economically disadvantaged people these options are not as available.

There are certainly higher levels of unemployment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Furthermore, ABS data (2015) shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Australians tend to work in lower paid positions, including pastime and casual work. It is therefore likely they have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 economic impacts. This limits options to spend time with family members they do not live with, and that in turn impacts on social and emotional health.

The mental health of many people – not just Aboriginal people – is being strained, and we all need to be kind and patient with each other. Aboriginal people have been subjected to a lifetime of racism, often in the form of micro aggressions. As minorities in their town, suburb or even just apartment building, living with physical distancing rules can consolidate feelings of marginalisation for Aboriginal people.

There needs to be concerted effort to ensure that everyone knows the social distancing rules, that exercises of police discretion are fair, and that penalties for infringements are used sparingly, and only in the most serious cases. There is already a problem with imprisonment of Aboriginal people for unpaid fines. Some Aboriginal people have tragically died while being held for unpaid fines.

Post COVID-19, it will be important to determine how many infringement notices were given in the wealthy suburbs of Sydney and other capital cities compared to the working-class suburbs, regional cities and towns, and whether there were any racial discrepancies in such policing.

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