19th March 2020 is National Close the Gap Day, which focuses our attention on the gaps in health equity for Indigenous Australians. The gap includes more severe consequences of COVID-19, especially for remote indigenous communities.
Further gaps identified in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (2008) include life expectancy, child mortality rate, education, and employment.
Whilst all these gaps need to be closed, perhaps other more fundamental rifts need to be attended to in order for indigenous people, and indeed our whole society, to flourish.
Right now I was meant to be in Cameroon, in Central West Africa. Largely due to the effect of COVID-19, my trip was postponed. I was meant to be working with people who, like many Indigenous Australians, are experiencing extreme poverty physically, as well as through a lack of education and opportunity. Informal settlements are growing in major cities across Cameroon, mostly due to climate change and conflict-induced internal displacement. As these people resettle, perhaps there is a broader issue being faced in Cameroon as in Australia. When so many people are forced to leave their traditional lands, their mountain, their stream - whether 200 years ago or today - and move to an environment that feels both hostile and foreign, there is a poverty of belonging. Behind the concept of belonging is the need for a sense of acceptance and welcome from those already in a place. Informal settlements or slums in Yaounde (capital of Cameroon) and Douala (the economic centre) do not receive this welcome. Nor largely do Indigenous Australians, despite Australia being their land in the first place.
For me, this is the deeper issue. We all need to cultivate acceptance and a sense of welcome for the stranger or the other. In turn this will help all of us share in a greater sense of belonging. One of the struggles in overcoming this lack of welcome and belonging is the perception, sometimes even sub-conscious, that people we see as not achieving like we are, struggle because of their own failings. Subtly this position leads to de-valuing and de-humanising individuals, which in turn leads to inactivity or passivity around overcoming hurdles to their flourishing. The inertia to closing the gap is felt by those who are struggling as well as the broader society.
Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson also sees that this attitude towards Indigenous Australians robs them of the contribution they can make to their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. If someone is told repeatedly through many different mediums - such as living conditions, social media, employment opportunities and so forth - that they are no good, that they don’t have the skills to make a difference, then over time this message will be believed and transmitted down generations.
So, where can we begin to close the gap? It starts in our own perceptions. I’m a strong believer that small acts can make a big difference. Those of us who are not part of the indigenous community can show kindness and understanding to Indigenous Australians. Instead of turning away, look for opportunities to engage in conversation, to hear and share story. Let people know that they are seen, valued and that they belong. This can begin to change the tide and make a dint in generational poverty. Of course, as in Cameroon, we need to be aware of other systemic issues and work to change these, but the starting point is with us and our behaviour. Anything else would be insincere. We need to learn what it means to embrace the stranger, to show love for the other. As in the African concept of ubuntu, we are linked together. Each of us only truly flourishes when everyone flourishes.
Read more about National Close the Gap Day on ANTaR's website
Read the 2020 Close the Gap report
Pledge to Close the Gap here
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