Arnhem Land – free from coronavirus, but not complacent

Published: 29 Apr 2020

Aerial view of Arnhem Land

As global coronavirus cases reportedly exceed 4 million with more than 300,000 * people succumbing to the pandemic, Arnhem Land – a remote wilderness in northern Australia – has not seen any infections*. Programme Director for MAF Arnhem Land, Ruth Jack, is working hard to keep it that way and explains the challenges involved…     

North-east Arnhem Land is home to around 5,000 Yolngu Aboriginal people (Nhulunbuy Corp). The Yolngu extended families live in ‘homelands’ scattered across the bush, which can take two days to reach by car from the nearest township of Nhulunbuy.

Nhulunbuy has a population of around 3,000 people (East Arnhem and comprises of a hospital, a supermarket and a couple of shops. Its neighbouring town is at least two days’ drive away.

Mission Aviation Fellowship has been flying the Yolngu across the hugely vast area of Arnhem Land (97,000km) since 1973. Today, MAF uses ten planes to service this area and each homeland has its own runway. Without MAF, the Yolngu face up to two days’ drive to reach essential services, but a MAF flight reduces travel time to a mere 30 or 45 minutes.

During the pandemic, most international flights are prohibited, but internal essential flights across Australia are permitted. Although MAF’s total number of flights have reduced across Arnhem Land, MAF is still able to serve the isolated Yolngu community. As a practical means of delivering food, transporting children to school and accessing medical treatment, MAF are the Australian government’s preferred supplier for the Yolngu during this crisis.

‘Australia has done a fantastic job’

So how have the Yolngu managed to avoid coronavirus? MAF Programme Director for Arnhem Land, Ruth Jack, says it’s largely down to the Australian Government’s strict border controls:

‘We’re really fortunate. Australia has done a fantastic job of keeping coronavirus at bay. The government shut its international borders quickly, so we’ve had minimal deaths.

The regulations for getting into Australia are very tight. To get into Arnhem Land is even more strict - you have to fill out lots of paperwork to get permission and once you land you are escorted by the police to a local hotel where you will need to isolate for two weeks at your own expense. As a result, coronavirus has not come to Arnhem Land.’

‘We have to be as strict - this is the new normal’

The Northern Territory government has just re-opened local schools, but parks are still closed and social gatherings are prohibited.

Many of the Yolngu have underlying health conditions, which make them more vulnerable to catching coronavirus. Ruth has had to write and implement a raft of new policies and procedures to protect them and her staff: 

‘We had a lot to do. We had to do risk assessments across the whole programme and set up a response team, which is answerable to the Crisis Management Team. We’ve learnt how to don PPE and how to wash our hands properly. We have a much stricter and cleaner regime.

As an essential service, we’re socially distancing within the office and have a safe maximum number of people inside.

If the Yolngu caught coronavirus, it would be extremely dangerous for them. It could wipe out Australia’s indigenous population, which would be a national disaster. We have to be as strict as we possibly can - this is the new normal.’

 Some of the Yolngu community receiving 450 kilos of food flown by MAF

‘Self-isolation does not translate well

Before coronavirus, MAF would regularly fly whole Yolngu families out from their homelands to Nhulunbuy’s supermarket to do their food shopping. Now in a bid to drastically reduce the risk of infection, MAF - wherever possible - are delivering pre-ordered shopping back to the homelands urging the Yolngu to stay at home.

Some members of the community however, still struggle with the concept of staying home and social distancing:

‘Self-isolation does not translate well amongst the Yolngu. They live in very close quarters in their family units. Trying to explain to them that it is currently dangerous for them to fly in and get their shopping is really hard for them to understand. To them, coronavirus is a western disease, which belongs to the white man, so they don’t believe they can catch it.’

The hospital in Nhulunbuy continues to order medical transfers from MAF two or three times per week and health care workers are permitted to fly out to the homelands so the Yolngu can access essential medical care.

Given schools have just re-opened in Arnhem Land, MAF have also resumed the school run at a current rate of three times per week.

A box of hundreds of N95 masks on their way to Laynhapuy Health who provide healthcare to the Yolngu  

The miracle of the masks

When the rest of the world was trying to contain the rapid spread of coronavirus and lay their hands on life-saving PPE, it became clear to Ruth that mask stocks in Arnhem Land were critically low:

‘We had 17 face masks, which would only last for a couple of days. We knew that if we were to fly any Covid-19 medevacs, we were going to be really stuck.

Because we’re so isolated, trying to order anything here is very difficult. In the UK, an Amazon order can arrive on the same day, but in Arnhem Land, you’ll be fortunate if it arrives in three weeks! Deliveries can take anything from six weeks to three months. Ordering PPE here was always going to be hard.’

MAF Australia in Sydney did a shout-out to their supporters and within days received 2,000 N95 masks and 1,000 surgical masks, which they immediately sent to Ruth in Arnhem Land:  ‘Suddenly we had too many masks and we knew that there were people who were struggling without them. We were able to give Laynhapuy Health - one of our local partners who regularly fly with us – hundreds of N95 masks, just as they boarded our plane to provide healthcare to the Yolngu.’

Laynhapuy Health is the only health care provider, which serves twenty remote homelands across East Arnhem Land. The masks will be used by their doctors, nurses and medical staff whilst treating the Yolngu.

Where is God in all of this?

Ruth believes that God is with us in the shadow of this disease:

‘In any hardship, God is right in the midst of it all working things out for his glory. When things are hard, there’s a call on Christians throughout the world to step up and partner with God.

Ask God what he is doing in this crisis and what are we doing right now to partner with him locally and internationally? This is something that we can all be a part of. God is teaching us something through this. At the end of this crisis, there will be testimonies.’

MAF in Arnhem Land are currently waiting on funding from the Australian government, which will enable MAF to ramp up the number of essential flights across East Arnhem to better serve the Yolngu


*Johns Hopkins University stats correct at the time of writing