Pandemic preparedness and disaster management in First Nations communities

10 May 2023

A lack of community voice, the misinformation ‘infodemic’, and limited mental health support have been identified as some of the challenges faced by First Nations people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new study, led by CQUniversity’s Office of Indigenous Engagement (OIE), has investigated how rural and remote local government areas with large Indigenous populations prepared for and responded to COVID-19 in their disaster management planning processes.

The collaborative project is funded by the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Disease Emergencies (APPRISE) project and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), with additional support from the BHP Vital Resources Fund.

CQU Research Fellow Dr Kylie Radel explained that First Nations people faced unique challenges throughout the pandemic and as such, required focused research undertaken through an Indigenous lens.

“We first analysed the available Local Disaster Management Plans (LDMPs) and pandemic sub-plans for rural and remote First Nations communities across Australia.

“A key finding was the lack of preparedness for a pandemic and the lack of community voice in decision-making. The findings highlighted the need for a comprehensive review of the LDMPs and pandemic sub-plans with the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders in planning,” Dr Radel said.

“We found that pandemic sub-plans lacked detail and were largely unavailable for review with no evidence of community engagement or inclusion of First Nations knowledge or practices.”

To further assist in understanding the challenges faced, Dr Radel said the researchers undertook stakeholder interviews with Indigenous leaders and community members ,to create genuine partnerships and collaboration with communities.

“Mental well-being was of significant concern. Community members reported fear related to vaccinations, anxiety over potential mortality rates particularly for elderly community members, and unease over families being isolated without access to country or cultural activities,” she explained.

“The ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and myths relating to potential vaccination side effects or the level of risk for remote First Nations peoples and circulated largely through social media, also created apprehension throughout these communities.”

The researchers believe this could be improved with new approaches to communication for public health messaging in First Nations communities.

“While our data analysis identified enablers of effective pandemic public health messaging for First Nation peoples globally, Local Disaster Management Groups (LDMGs) were challenged in the provision of effective public health messaging suited to their communities,” Dr Radel said.

“The complex and rapidly changing legislative, policy, and health directive environments confused the LDMGs responsible for planning and implementing appropriate responses. The changes also impacted on timely dissemination of state-sourced information.

“Community members interviewed reported that the changes in messages and some lack of information led to them not knowing who to believe or misunderstanding their level of risk.”

Dr Radel said improved collaboration between state government health and hospital services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOS), LDMGs and local government needs to happen to ensure better outcomes going forward.

“Looking to the future, establishing the roles and responsibilities across all stakeholders in the development and distribution of pandemic public health messaging will play a key role in improving communication outcomes," she explained.

“We have also suggested additional research into the specific knowledge requirements for community members with tailored messaging as some communities do not speak English as their primary language.

“There are excellent opportunities for better communication through face-to-face knowledge sharing and development of school programs for children and youths.”

CQUniversity’s Deputy Vice-President Indigenous Engagement, Professor Adrian Miller explained that these research outcomes and recommendations will contribute to developing future disaster management plans for remote communities with highly at-risk populations.

“Although this study has limitations that prevent findings from being generalised to remote communities across Australia, it may assist with future policy development and implementation that incorporates contributions of community voices,” Prof Miller said.

“These findings and recommendations will be distributed to key decision-makers in disaster management and health at all levels of government in the coming months.”