COVID-19 and the Cadigal peoples of Sydney

This pandemic has had horrific consequences, so far and the end is not in sight, as of the equinox,. There could be a huge death toll.

‘Based on what we can see so far, COVID-19 is far less deadly to infected patients than Ebola or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, another novel coronavirus). However, the fact that this coronavirus is so contagious and has crossed borders means significantly more people are expected to die.
Deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly told reporters he anticipates a 1 per cent death rate for Australia. That means if the virus were to reach any more than 40 per cent of the population, it could see more Australian lives lost than in both world wars combined.’ [https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-22/covid-19-how-deadly-and-contagious-is-coronavirus/12068106]

Let’s put this health and economic crisis in an Australian perspective.

Day one of the outbreak in 1789 is unknown but it occurred over a year after the First Fleet landed. By the following April Smallpox had devastated the local community who, unlike the British, had no resistance. This new disease can bring death in just days and was not detected at first.

Newton Fowell, a sailor on the First Fleet, recorded in a letter that they found Aborigines, ‘laying Dead on the Beaches and in the Caverns of Rocks, generally found with the remains of a Small Fire on each Side of them and some Water left within their Reach.’ These are the beautiful beaches tourists and locals use without any notion of this history.

‘At that time a native was living with us; and on taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot; … not a living person was anywhere to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, `All dead! all dead!′ and then hung his head in mournful silence.’ David Collins, Judge-Advocate of the colony, April, 1789.

A likely source of the disease was the ‘variolas matter’ Surgeon John White brought with him on the First Fleet. ‘Variolas matter’ is pus taken from a recovering smallpox sufferer and sealed in a glass bottle to isolate and preserve it. White intended to use it to variolate (early form of inoculation) any children born in the settlement. He never considered the locals.

Arabanoo was a Cadigal man captured at Manly, New Year’s Eve, 1788. Governor Phillip wanted to learn about Cadigal customs and language. He was probably in his late twenties of robust build ‘with a thoughtful face and a soft, musical voice.’ On release, he cared for those who contracted the disease they called ‘gal-gal-la’, reporting that families had fled both north and west. Those least affected were people aged between five and fourteen.

Arabanoo died from the disease around May 18 and was buried in the governor’s garden. David Collins wrote that his death was, ‘to the great regret of everyone who had witnessed how little of the savage was found in his manner, and how quickly he was substituting in its place a docile, affable, and truly amiable deportment.’

Three quarters of Aborigines living round this harbour died within two years of the First Fleet landing. Typhoid, Cholera, Influenza, Measles, Chickenpox, Tuberculosis, Gonorrhea and Syphilis followed that first wave of contamination. The ancient Cadigal culture, ways of being, their skills and knowledge of living with their environment was dispersed and eventually lost.

And indigenous Australians are still much more at risk from COVID-19 than the general Australian population. Diabetes, renal failure, poor nutrition and smoking  are more prevalent. On top of which medical services in remote areas are not extensive or well equipped. On top of which, despite the remoteness of many communities, self isolating is very difficult since overcrowding in substandard housing is common.

All non-essential travel to the Northern Territory’s 76 remote communities is banned from March 24.