UPDATE: It now appears that Indigenous Australians are being detained against their will in the Howard Springs quarantine camp. On Wednesday the 1st of December, three Indigenous teenagers escaped but were found by police and returned to the facility. More to come.

The rumours about Indigenous Australians being forced into quarantine and subjected to forced vaccination are false. But you’re not silly for wondering if they were true. Here’s why.

Over recent days, reports have circulated online of horrific treatment towards Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. Several videos have been shared widely, alleging that residents of Binjari and Rockhole, small towns on the outskirts of Katherine, have been subjected to forced vaccination and forced relocation to a quarantine camp.

I spent a considerable amount of time this week speaking to Indigenous friends and following the news coming out of the NT to discern if there was any truth to these claims. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that either vaccination or quarantine have been forced on Aboriginal residents against their will.

According to the Katherine Times, senior community members from the two towns have denounced these claims as false and have called for the rumours to stop. Well-known conservative Indigenous leader Jacinta Price has also posted a video on Facebook to set the record straight.

The Facts on the Ground

The facts about the situation, coming from the NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner, is that a hard lockdown was implanted in Binjari and Rockhole earlier this week. The lockdown in Rockhole has since been relaxed, but residents of Binjari are currently not allowed to leave their homes to exercise, provide care for others, work, study, buy food, or even to get medical treatment.

Overcrowding has been a particular concern in these townships, where multiple families are known to live together in small homes. News.com.au reports that:

To date, 38 close contacts from these communities have been transported to Darwin’s Quarantine camp, Howard Springs. This is also where other travellers entering the NT have been placed to complete their quarantine during the pandemic…

About 20 Australian Defence Force Personnel and army trucks have been brought in to help with the transport to Howard Springs [a mandatory supervised quarantine camp], and to bring in food parcels for residents. The NT Health COVID-19 rapid response team also sent in eight people to assist, and to help vaccinate residents who wanted the jab.

Mistrust Sown By Leaders

In response to the rumours, Michael Gunner went on the offensive, calling those who believed the stories “tinfoil-hat wearing tossers”. Presumably, Gunner was aware that the concerns circulated online — unfounded though they may be — originally came from multiple Indigenous people expressing fears of a land-grab and even genocide (see here, here and here).

Whether coming from political figures like Gunner or the media platforms that amplify them, such insults are as inflammatory and damaging to the public trust as the gossip they seek to decry.

It wasn’t the only time this week that the NT’s Chief Minister stoked mistrust with the public. On a separate occasion, he made the wild claim that anyone who opposes vaccine mandates is an “anti-vaxxer”, even if they are vaccinated!

This kind of radical rhetoric only drives a wedge between leaders and those they are commissioned to represent. There are in fact good reasons that Australians — both Indigenous and otherwise — might harbour fear for the treatment of Northern Territorians.

The Historic Mistreatment of Indigenous Australians

An obvious one is the historic mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, much of which persisted into last century.

To some, it may seem unthinkable that governments in 2021 would repeat the horrors of the past. But one of the ironies of viewing all contemporary Indigenous issues through the lens of past injustice — which we so often do today — is that it keeps these injustices at the forefront of our national consciousness.

If you dare to watch the videos mentioned above that were filmed by Indigenous Australians, the sense of genuine fear is palpable. Deep mistrust persists. Perhaps this is one of the biggest gaps that needs to be closed in our efforts towards reconciliation and national unity.

I would argue that emphasising Australia’s progress rather than its past failures will help us close this mistrust gap.

Fear, Hysteria and the Human Condition

Another reason so many Australians got caught up in the rumour mill this week is that fear and hysteria are part of the human condition. Social media has certainly exacerbated this over the last decade. Even so, events like the 17th-century Salem witch trials did great damage without any assistance from Facebook or Twitter.

Likewise, fear and hysteria are not unique to just one side of politics.

Take a look at the debate over Covid-19. Yes, there are many who fear government tyranny, the disappearance of medical consent, and a new world order of global digital surveillance. But there are equal amounts of fear among those who are fully vaccinated but remain constantly alarmed by case numbers, new variants and those not vaccinated.

I was initially very disturbed by the reports I was hearing from the Northern Territory, and I was glad to have had those fears relieved. That doesn’t make me a conspiracy theorist or a reactionary: it makes me human.

The Human Rights of All Australians Have Been Suspended

Here is perhaps the most significant reason so many believed the rumours this week: Australians everywhere have been coerced into taking the vaccine and many have been locked inside their homes. The reports coming from the NT were not so far from the experience of Aussies living in big cities all around the country.

Justify it how you will, but having your job taken away, your loved ones locked out of your state, or your freedoms suspended until you take a vaccine is a violation of human rights.

Don’t argue with me: take it up with the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, which reads:

Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information.

The majority of Australians have given free consent to the Covid-19 vaccine. But hundreds of thousands have not: they have taken a provisionally-approved vaccine under duress. At best, this can be characterised as “extracted consent”. It is certainly not free consent, nor is it free of “undue pressure, coercion or manipulation” as the Australian Immunisation Handbook requires.

To speak plainly, Australian governments have violated our human rights this year. This being true, they have also violated the human rights of Indigenous Australians. There are undoubtedly many Aboriginal Australians who have had their jobs and freedoms withheld unless they take the vaccine. We are right to be upset about this.

Living Up to Our Values

The residents of Binjari might be more vulnerable to Covid-19 than the average Australian, but they too posses the inalienable human right to self-determination. Like me, they may not appreciate the paternalism and medical imperialism of our governments.

Covid-19 and its risks are real. But all Australians, whether on the lands or in the cities, should be allowed to make the health choices that are best for them. For many, this will mean vaccination and voluntary isolation during an outbreak. But that may not be necessary for everyone — and Indigenous Aussies should be given the opportunity to make their own decisions about these matters.

To the extent that we forget the freedom and dignity of the individual, we risk repeating the mistakes of our past. Let’s not do that. It’s time we end these mandates and lockdowns, and restore the values that make Australia great.

Image via Cairns Post.