The Burden of the Beast. Countering conspiracies and misinformation within Indigenous communities in Australia
Bronwyn Fredericks, Abraham Bradfield, Sue McAvoy, James Ward, Shea Spierings, Troy Combo, and Agnes Toth-Peter.
M/C Journal 25 (1) 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2862
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and its fluctuating waves of infections and the emergence of new variants, Indigenous populations in Australia and worldwide have remained at high risk. Indigenous populations are all too familiar with the deadly consequences of introduced disease. Outbreaks such as the H1N1 influenza epidemic in 2009 disproportionately impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Komesaroff et al.; Eades et al.), while past epidemics introduced by colonisers have decimated, and in some cases eradicated entire language groups (Fredericks, Holcombe, and Bradfield).
As COVID-19 spreads, and highly contagious variants such as Omicron emerge, preventative measures and vaccinations have never been so important. Vaccination rates in some Indigenous communities, however, remain stubbornly low, with hesitancy coinciding with the spread of misinformation and amplification of conspiracy theories. In some cases, conspiracies have infiltrated Indigenous communities, playing on anxieties derived in part from the impact of colonisation, as well as past and present trauma. The scale of misinformation relating to COVID-19, particularly online, has become a worldwide problem with the World Health Organization terming it an “infodemic” (World Health Organization) and others a “misinfodemic” (Pickles et al.).
In this article, we discuss how conspiracies have impacted vaccination rates in some Indigenous communities in Australia. We acknowledge that vaccine hesitancy is not universal amongst all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and that differing responses to public health messaging are informed by diverse socio-historic factors. The most effective strategies towards curbing the spread of misinformation, and hopefully disease, however, arise from community-led and driven initiatives that are informed by evidence-based messaging that empowers Indigenous agency and choice.