Australian authorities have been rounding up terrified indigenous people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the Northern Territory and bringing them to a quarantine camp in Howard Springs in what many are viewing as an extreme overreaction to a small outbreak of the virus in the Aboriginal community of Binjari.
The community, which is situated 16 kilometers southwest of Katherine, is made up of more than 200 people, many of whom live in very close quarters.
The government has been controversially testing wastewater there to detect traces of the virus; positive results led to the mobilization of a response team to conduct door-to-door testing and offer people vaccines. They are now reporting they have reached a 100 percent first-dose vaccination rate there, although many are questioning how much of a choice people were given.
Criticism has been flooding in from around the world of the government’s tactic of carting people off to quarantine centers via military trucks.
Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker explained that it was a question of practicality, saying:
“Wherever we’ve got [residences with] overcrowding, or where it’s just simply not a case where an individual can have access to their own ablutions for example … it does create a limited pool for those to be able to quarantine without going to [Howard Springs].”
He added that they plan to continue with this model.
On November 20, hard lockdowns were instituted for those remaining in the area as Chief Minister Michael Gunner said that residents of both Binjari and Rockhole are no longer allowed to leave their homes for the five reasons other Australians may leave for: going to work or school, exercising, caregiving, buying food or supplies, or getting vaccinated. Now, the only reason they are allowed to leave is for medical treatment.
Around 350 residents are currently under orders not to leave their homes. They are also contending with excessively high temperatures, and some are without power. Chalker said that several people had been slapped with fines of more than AU$5,000 (roughly US$3,600) after getting caught sneaking out of their homes during the night.
There are questions surrounding whether those brought to quarantine camps went willingly. The leader of the Binjari Community Aboriginal Corporation, Deb Aloisi, said that people there were “frightened” by the government’s response.
“They get scared because the Territory health vehicle comes in and the guys are all gowned up and masked up … and a big shield on their face.”
Border rule changes in the Northern Territory
The Northern Territory has instituted dramatic border rule changes that see unvaccinated travelers being banned from entering the region, except for essential personnel and people who live in the territory who are returning from jurisdictions where the virus is not currently present.
People who are arriving from red zones where the virus is present must be fully vaccinated and will be required to quarantine at home for one week. They must take a rapid antigen test when they arrive and return a negative PCR within 72 hours. They must also get tested 5, 8 and 14 days after they have left quarantine and remain in a high vaccination zone away from remote communities and aged care facilities.
Last weekend, thousands of people protested across Australia against the country’s extreme vaccine mandates and other measures.
So far, 85 percent of the population has been vaccinated, and the federal and state governments’ emergency restrictions and lockdowns are among the strictest in the world.