Pat Dodson has condemned fringe Christian groups for promoting anti-vaccination propaganda in remote Western Australia, saying people who spread fear and misinformation around coronavirus vaccines are “evil”.
The WA senator has called on religious leaders of all faiths to condemn the “rogue groups,” saying they are people “whose religious bent in life seems to be propagating mistruths about the vaccine” and “creating fear and hesitancy”.
“I’ve called on the churches, church leaders, of all religious denominations, to come together and the other makes some statement about it so that these sort of rogue groups can be isolated or at least identified, and the nature of their propaganda can be identified and disputed,” Dodson said.
“Because it’s people’s lives at the end of the day that’s going to be affected here, not some of these God-botherers.”
Dodson said religious groups had fuelled vaccine hesitancy in the Kimberley, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country.
“It’s destructive, it’s as evil as the evil that they purport to be defending people from and it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s difficult enough for people in remote communities to understand the fundamentals of distancing, of wearing masks, of separations in terms of gatherings and quarantining.
“Let alone someone that comes along and says that this particular virus is the work of the white man and the work of the devil. I mean that’s that’s just so preposterous. That ought to be offensive and people ought to be charged and put in jail over it.”
Just 15% of people in the Kimberley and Pilbara were fully vaccinated as of Friday, Dodson said, and 25% have received their first dose.
But that information is not included in the national data released by the federal health department. Dodson moved a motion in the Senate on Tuesday calling on the government to release vaccination rates for First Nations people by geographic area.
It’s information that Aboriginal medical services, the royal flying doctor service, and people like WA’s new vaccine rollout commander, Chris Dawson, who is on secondment from his role as police commissioner, need to deliver vaccines to communities.
The statewide vaccination rates for Western Australia are 50.4% of people over the age of 16 have received their first dose, and 31.5% are fully vaccinated.
Dodson said it was “terribly disappointing” to see anti-vaccination sentiment spread through remote communities when Aboriginal medical services have worked hard over decades to ensure that childhood vaccination rates for Indigenous children were at 97%, above the national target of 95%.
“It makes me really angry to see people deliberately undermining the hard work that’s going in by our medical services,” he said.
“This should not be tolerated. This is not a play tool. You don’t feed people misinformation when it’s a question of potentially their life or death.
“That should be stamped on very, very radically. The church leaders ought to come out and condemn it. And the police ought to be given some power – I’m all for civil freedoms but I think in this case it’s just wrong.”
The Yawuru man said he was concerned that the tragedy unfolding in western New South Wales could happen in Aboriginal communities in WA if the virus were to get into the state, which currently has zero cases.
Australia has now recorded its first Aboriginal death from Covid-19, with the death of a 50-year-old man in Dubbo regional hospital. Two-thirds of the more than 600 Covid cases in the western NSW local health district are in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and in Wilcannia, 73 people out of a town of 720 have tested positive – the highest transmission rate in the country.
“What we’re seeing in New South Wales is an absolute disgrace. It makes me very angry that we’re now seeing this in the prisons, and little towns like Brewarrina and Wilcannia,” Dodson said.
“It’s only a matter of time that the same kind of predicament befalls many of our communities in Western Australia. From the Kimberley, the Pilbara, the Murchison, even the Noongar people down the south – there’s very little that’s telling me we are well prepared to handle the crisis if it hits.”
He said clinics weren’t capable of dealing with a serious outbreak in these areas, and logistics was also a challenge.
“There’s usually only one store. Who is going to look after the kids if people are taken into the hospital or evacuated? How do supplies get in and out? What happens if there’s more than one person, where do you isolate to?
“And then even if you come into a rather large town like Broome, it’s got a limited capacity as well to handle the serious outbreaks.”
Dodson said the news an Aboriginal person had died from Covid would have a “tremendous impact on people”.
“I’m very sad for those families or the families of that particular person who died. It’s so sad,” he said. “We knew this was going to happen. The government knew this was going to happen.”