The low rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in Indigenous Australians continues to cause concern for politicians desperate to reopen borders, but one community near Alice Springs has turned that on its head with 94 per cent of the eligible population having received at least one dose.
About 200 people live in Areyonga, also known as Utju, a small Indigenous community nestled in a sandstone valley in the MacDonnell Ranges, 170 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
While only 36 per cent of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory outside Darwin have been double vaccinated, and 47 per cent of First Nations people have been double vaccinated nationally, Utju is well on its way to full coverage.
One major reason for the community’s success was the push by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church member Sarah Gallagher, a long-term health worker in the community, who has almost single-handedly persuaded residents to get the jab.
‘We’ve seen it everywhere. Our community heard about it, seen the news, it’s everywhere’, she said.
‘Our community people have been saying, “we’ve got to think about ourselves here. This is a good community, we need to go to the clinic and get vaccinated”.’
Residents in the remote community of Utju said they were proud of their community’s vaccination efforts.
Health workers who service the community have also credited strong male leadership in the community in the uptake success. Jonathan Doolan, who has lived in Utju for 20 years, said the community had felt fear and uncertainty about COVID.
The combined efforts of Ms Gallagher’s commitment to her community and Mr Doolan’s leadership, has led to success, but the formula has proven difficult to replicate in other communities struggling to promote vaccination.
‘People trust me. I live here in my community and people trust me’, Ms Gallagher said.
While Utju has exceeded the national vaccination rate for the general population, many other Indigenous communities are lagging well behind. Now the leaders of Utju are working to encourage their friends and families living in other communities to get vaccinated.
‘Some are listening to us. Some don’t know what to do but they’ll listen to us that this is safe for us and our community.’
Steven Schubert is a journalist with ABC Alice Springs, who kindly gave Finke River Mission permission to republish this story.