With Indigenous communities more vulnerable to COVID-19, due to issues like higher levels of chronic illness and overcrowded housing, the government and community sector need to consider its impact on the most vulnerable people within this already at-risk group, says Dr Kyllie Cripps from the Faculty of Law at UNSW.

“We’ve got people in our communities who are already vulnerable in domestic or family violence situations, who are likely to become more so as the social and physical distancing mechanisms are enforced,” says the Pallawa woman and UNSW Scientia Fellow, who researches domestic and family violence in Indigenous communities.

“Our homes should be a safe place, especially in these times, but we know that increased isolation, stress, and lack of community accountability – because everyone is self-isolating – is a dangerous environment for people in domestic and family violence situations. We have to be conscious and alert to that.”

Every action has a ripple effect

Last week, the Parliament of New South Wales passed the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) bill, which made several changes to legislation to combat the spread of COVID-19 and boost community safety.

These included extending provisional Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders from 28 days to 6 months, and granting the Commissioner of Corrective Services the power to release vulnerable and low-risk offenders on parole.

While these measures are necessary and welcomed, Dr Cripps is concerned of the “ripple effect” these measures will have if the government and community sectors fail to consider potential impacts at multiple levels.

“If a Domestic Violence Order forces the perpetrator from the home during the pandemic, where does that person go for 6 months? If someone is a victim of domestic violence, and does not feel safe in the home will there be accommodation for them elsewhere? If they have to stay in the home  what measures are available to better protect them?” 

“Recognising that, even before the COVID-19 crisis, Australia has had serious housing issues in Indigenous communities, with overcrowding but also a critical lack of available emergency, transitional and long term housing particularly for Indigenous women and children trying to escape domestic violence. It’s crucial that members of the community are thinking about safety plans, that they know who to call if they or someone they love needs help and that they are aware of services like Link2Home, which can provide temporary housing,” says Dr Cripps.

The other major change to the legislation allows low-risk prisoners to be released in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in prisons, where Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented.

Overcrowding in private housing is also an issue that occurs at approximately three times the rate of the non-Indigenous population, and makes public health prevention measures like physical distancing difficult to implement.

“While the decision to release low-risk prisoners is positive, because we do not want to have an increase in Aboriginal deaths in custody as a consequence of COVID-19, we need to think ahead to those ripple effects and ensure that when these prisoners are released, they are supported,” says Dr Cripps.

“Are we releasing them to a community that has already been locked down to keep the virus out, therefore putting that community at risk should they go there as soon as they are released, particularly if there is already exposure to the virus within the prison system? Is the home they’re going to safe? How many people already live there? We need to forecast these things, otherwise we’re setting people up to fail.”

These concerns also extend to Indigenous children experiencing domestic and family violence who often gather in groups of friends to avoid being at home, Dr Cripps says. She suggests that serious conversations need to be had around how Indigenous children understand the new social distancing rules, and how police communicate this to them. 

“Rather than telling groups of Indigenous kids to go home, they need to be asking if those kids have a safe place to go. Being fined or charged with an offence because they haven’t complied with the new rules is not the best way for us to be handling this situation especially for kids who haven’t got a safe place to be.” 

The measures that have been put in place to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities have been necessary because an outbreak would have devastating and long-lasting impacts. However, the many complicated health and social needs of Indigenous people means considerations need to be made to the impacts these decisions have on the vulnerable groups within the community.

“This crisis really does rely on us all, as individuals, community organisations,  government services and our non government sectors – coming together to work better in this situation, to make sure that we're identifying all the gaps and working together to fill them. Our work together needs to ensure that nobody is left behind or put in a worse position because we have not given thought to the ripple effects of our decisions” Dr Cripps says.

“These are going to be hard times. We can't not anticipate that. It's about working together effectively to manage what is ahead, and making the best decisions to protect the people who are the most vulnerable.”

If you’re experiencing family or domestic violence, homelessness or mental health issues, contact:

Link2Home Homelessness: 1800 152 152

Domestic Violence Line NSW: 1800 656 463

National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence counselling service: 1800 RESPECT

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Kassi Klower