The death of George Floyd ignited more than just a social movement around the world that has brought many of us together and out in the streets to demand that the systems we inhabit stamp out a pandemic of racial injustice and violent practices that continues to endanger black lives in our communities. In a matter of days, the once empty streets in our major cities were filled by the tens of thousands across the country chanting the words, “Black Lives Matter!,” implying that they currently do not matter, in the society we live in.
Despite the media, police and political antagonism of this important movement during a pandemic that we are all too aware of, it is important to note that the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 are not competing issues. As the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin states, “if the same commitment made by Australians and their governments to control COVID-19 was applied to eradicating racism and improving the circumstances of our First Peoples, Australia would be an enormously advanced nation.”
When asked why it’s important to mobilise for the issue, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), who’ve led the rallies here in Australia, points out, “there are not many opportunities where Aboriginal issues of death in custody and police and state violence will be heard. It was imperative for us to elevate the voices of the families of people whose lives have been cut short due to systemic racism and violence.”
Since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991, there have been more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people die in police custody. A rate of more than one black person dying per month in the hands of the institutions that we’ve been repeatedly told are here to protect us. To this day, there has not been a single conviction. As one of the many symptoms of the over-policing and ongoing colonisation of the First Peoples of this country, Aboriginal people represent 29% of the Australian prison population. This becomes even more disturbing when we begin to realise that this country’s First Peoples represent only 3% of the total population.
We are all in this together
The overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also seeps into our fight against HIV. Peter Waples-Crowe, an HIV-advocate and someone who works alongside us in this space, wrote in Poslink Newsletter, “although rates of HIV are decreasing in the non-indigenous population, nationally new notifications are actually increasing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
Over the past six years, we’ve seen that “HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men have reduced by 30 percent.” However, in 2018 alone, we’ve seen an increase of 41 percent of HIV infection among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.” Alongside these groups, rates of HIV diagnoses amongst heterosexual Australians, and gay and bisexual men born overseas also continue to increase.
This is a sign that there is still a lot of work to be done in our fight against the racial and social inequities that intersect with our fight against HIV.
Due to the ongoing mistreatment of the First Peoples of Australia, the destruction of their land and culture, control over their self-determination, increase in HIV diagnoses, and the many key issues that affect and lessen the quality and length of the lives of the longest living culture in this planet, we are well and way overdue for a change.
Richard Keane, CEO of Living Positive Victoria, remarks “when we leave people behind, we are all vulnerable. This is the case for the HIV positive community across both.”
He adds, “we saw in the immediate response to coronavirus, the inequities in access to the welfare safety net leaving people in the position where they are making decisions over risking exposure to ensure that there is food on the table. The gap in the development of accessible and culturally appropriate information and general health literacy that has led to a disproportionate impact on communities’ already experiencing marginalisation. An HIV diagnosis adds another burden in communities where this issue is not easily discussed.”
For one of our members, who is part of the Eritrean community in Victoria, the intersection of this pandemic and HIV have been both economically challenging and socially isolating.
She said, “it would be great if the Australian Government can help me. For me, as a single-mother with five kids, who has lost most of my hours at work, and have no access to Job-seeker or Job-keeper because of my visa status, it has been very difficult. My family and friends also have a very low understanding of HIV, and because of this, I haven’t been accepted in my family and I’m not getting any support.”
She also adds, “so many people in our communities still don’t accept or know about HIV as well as other communities. For a lot of the people I know who are Eritrean and Sudanese, so many of them hide themselves and do not get involved in their communities.”
She demands, “I would like to see more people like me supporting people like me in this space. We need people who can hear our voice because we need connection. For a lot of us, our own families don’t accept nor listen to us. Now is that time where we need to be more than family.”
To once again echo the words of WAR, “Aboriginal lives, and the lives of Black and Brown people, depend on us making a stand. When their lives are violently cut short, it is our moral obligation to say something and to do something – they need our collective outrage, they need us to rally, they need us to fight. We call on everyone who can to stand and fight with us, in whatever capacity you can. Our collective work together is the only way to build our collective futures.”
Similar to the views of the Centre for Multicultural Youth, we hope that this global wake-up call inspires us “to question and reflect on our own humanity and sense of justice. Here in Australia, this work must begin with an acknowledgement of the history and foundations of racial inequity in our own country. As a community, we need to listen and understand how this entrenched racism is impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, and what role each of us can play in contributing to change.”
We’d also like to take this opportunity to raise the voice of the Positive Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Network, who demand “immediate action to address the racist laws, racist policies and racist policing that continues, after 200 years, to make the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people more difficult, shorter and more dangerous than that of their fellow Australians.”
Signs of hope
All around the world, institutions, communities, groups, and various individuals have started to respond meaningfully to the issues raised by the many black and coloured communities who are raising Floyd’s voice, among others.
In Minneapolis, USA, where George Floyd was killed, the policemen involved were fired and charged with murder, and their City Council pledged to disband the police force. Last month, all around the world, we’ve seen monuments glorifying slave-trade and colonialism taken down and attacked to signify a new pervading moral code in these societies. Reforms of different kinds are starting to force institutions to move in the right direction.
In our own state, The Victorian Government is in the process of “establishing a truth and justice process to formally recognise historic wrongs – and address ongoing injustices – for Aboriginal Victorians.” The Department of Health and Human Services is also providing a one-off $1,500 payment designed to financially support Victorian workers, including those with temporary visas, who needs to self-isolate or quarantine at home. Their support has also been instrumental for us as an organisation to enable our support for PLHIV who are students, visa–holders, and migrant families. This has kept people with HIV connected to care through these challenging times.
For our members who are in need of emergency financial support, please get in touch with us through our FLIP Program.
In our communities, we’ve also seen organisations like the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations make space for First Nations folk to lead our fight against HIV in our communities. Our partner organisations, Thorne Harbour Health also launched a multi-lingual resource to support international students to access services and support and Positive Women Victoria have prioritised cultural safety across their programs to support the diverse communities of women living with HIV.
Be the change
At Living Positive Victoria, we stand alongside the many diverse groups that support the First Nations’ Peoples’ of this country who resist against racism and police and correctional services that continue to endanger black lives in our communities. We also recognise that this problem also touches on the issues faced by our members who experience the many faces of racism.
Richard Keane adds, “we will also be developing a reconciliation action plan over the next two years to review the way that we engage not only First Nations people living with HIV within the structures of our organisation, but how we engage culturally diverse populations to ensure they are considered at every level of the decision making processes that affect their lives.”
We’re currently in consultation with the many diverse communities that we work with to develop policies that will help us tackle the racial inequities that continue to feed this system. We hope you join us in our ongoing fight for equity, equality and justice. If you would like to take part in this process, please get in touch with our Community Engagement Officer, Emil at firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Keane reasserts, “we will ensure that the voices and lived experience of diverse community members living with and affected by HIV share their truths, their challenges and their successes.”
As we learn from those who’ve helped us get where we are today, we hope that you, alongside us, will take responsibility to help dismantle the systems that affect too many of us.
For example, you can do this by listening and raising the voices of the First Peoples’ voices in this country, and by following and supporting organisations like the Centre for Multicultural Youth, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations Inc., the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, and the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, just to name a few.
For a comprehensive list of other First Nations’ services, please go to DeadlyStory, where you can search organisations by state and type of services.
You can also check out the following resources that have been developed by allies in this space: There’s Communal Sense where you can learn more about the different First Nations’ organisations that work in various sectors in our country. There’s also Path To Equality, which was developed as a community directory to help inform, inspire and direct you on your own path to fighting racial injustice.
As always, we acknowledge the Kulin Nation as the owners of the lands on which we live, and acknowledge that the people of this land hold knowledge about health and medical systems which have been practised for thousands of years as the key to tackling diseases like HIV in their communities. We look forward to supporting and working even more closely with these communities and to work towards a far more equitable world.
Sovereignty was never ceded. Always was, always will be.
Artist: Arone Meeks is a Kuku Midiji man from Laura, Cape York, Far North Queensland. From his home in Cairns, Arone Meeks creates works of art that speak to us of cross-cultural interaction, relationships, gender, traditional and modern spirituality and his environment. Their art also interconnects with health promotion, HIV, and working with communities.
Artwork and Artist’s statement: Homage to Haring (2019), Arone Meeks, Kuku Midiji man, Mixed Media, 120cm (W) x 170cm (H) x 5cm (D). “A homage to Keith Haring an American graffiti artist, who drew more interest and understanding of HIV Awareness. This artwork, talks about the awareness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, around blood-borne viruses. I did this artwork to maintain an awareness that HIV is still here. Using Haring’s classic Dog figure with a Crocodile, within the 2 images are many symbols and icons of sexuality.”