As Queenslanders prepare themselves for more open borders and the subsequent spread of COVID-19, many people living in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in the state’s remote far north are paralysed with fear. 

Key points:

  • The Torres and Cape region is well behind state and national averages for vaccination levels
  • Hesitancy surrounding vaccination is common 
  • Some local leaders are pushing for Cape York to be shut off from Queensland again

People in the communities are equally as afraid of vaccination as they are of losing family members to a distant and invisible disease.

Queensland’s border “wall” will fall in 31 days, or earlier, once 80 per cent of the state’s eligible population has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Torres Strait was the first region in Australia to be offered the COVID-19 vaccine — a deliberate move by health authorities to fortify the region against the threat posed by neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

Queensland Health figures show only 50 per cent of people aged 12 and above in the Torres and Cape region are double vaccinated, well behind state and national averages.

Queensland Health data for Torres and Cape does not include vaccinations given at pharmacies, by the Royal Flying Doctor Service or GPs, but is currently the most accurate reflection of vaccination rates available for the remote region. 

Months on, misinformation is rife, but a quietly powerful force within the community is trying to change opinions and save lives.

Why are people not getting vaccinated?

The ABC recently visited the Torres and Cape region and spoke to dozens of people across a range of ages and professions.

Vaccine hesitancy is commonplace, driven mainly by a fear of sickness or reaction, conspiracy theories or a belief that COVID-19 won’t affect them.

For others, it’s a case of “God will save me”, or they are simply waiting to see if other people die first.

“None of my family has had it yet, so as soon as they do, I’ll get [the vaccine] … I still think it’s too early to make a decision,” Torres Strait Islander Jimmy said.

On Cape York, senior traditional owner Michael Solomon has his own plan.

A man and a woman smiling at the camera

Silen David and Murray Sailor got their vaccine so they can visit family on the mainland. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Silen David and Murray Sailor said they were sitting on the fence but decided to get the vaccine so they could visit family on the mainland. 

“That’s what most of the people around here are talking about, you know, just amongst themselves.

“We was half-and-half to [be vaccinated] but, like, we want to go. We got plenty of kids around us, so we need to get the vaccine.”

There have been no vaccine-related deaths in the Torres Strait.

A real threat

Carol Thompson, who volunteers with the Torres Strait Aged Care Association, has heard it all before.

“I asked one of my friends, one of the aged people, and that person thought that God will take care of us … don’t you think he could do with a bit of help?” she said.

“That’s a danger.”

a woman in an aged care centre looks at the camera

Carol Thompson, chair of the Torres Strait Aged Care Association, says the region is too relaxed about the threat of COVID-19 because it has not had a case yet.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

In daily contact with aged and vulnerable Torres Strait Islanders, Ms Thompson is acutely aware of the risks to the region.

“If it comes in, we will be dropping like flies,” she said.

Ms Thompson has lived on Thursday Island her whole life and, slowly but surely, has been talking to friends and family trying to change minds.

“If you want to read it to me, I’ll hit you with all the things that are wrong about it.

“Sometimes I think people want to believe it.”

Ongoing battle against fake news

a hand on a radio desk fiddling with faders

Torres Strait radio station 4MW has broadcast COVID-19 information in local language throughout the pandemic. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Across the road, Aunty Jen Enosa is on the phone, lining up talent for her daily radio show.

She is something of a local celebrity and was one of the first locals on Thursday to roll up her sleeve and get the vaccine.

“If I can do it, you can do it as well.”

Over the past 18 months, Aunty Enosa has used her show on local station 4 Meriba Wakai to broadcast COVID-19 news across the region.

“Being in media is to use those powerful tools to … get that word through those channels to educate the communities,” she said.

Final sprint for vaccination

Marlow Coates looks at the camera, garden in the background

Marlow Coates says the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service is ramping up its vaccination effort ahead of the December 17 deadline.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Around the corner, at the Thursday Island Hospital, Dr Marlow Coates is busy finalising plans for a month-long vaccination blitz on the Torres and Cape in the lead-up to December 17.

The Hospital and Health Service has teamed up with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) to coordinate almost 60 vaccination clinics before Christmas.

Dr Coates said the rollout had entered a new, ultra-tailored phase, targeted at communities with the lowest rates and driven by community leaders.

As part of the approach, some communities are being doorknocked, like Yarrabah and Cherboug.

“We’re not there to be forceful; there are some communities that are requesting we do that and providing great resources for us to go do that doorknocking, but it’s not universal,” he said.

The Torres and Cape region is yet to see its first locally acquired case of COVID-19, but once outbreaks begin, the hospital service plans to send its positive cases to Cairns.

Local travel restrictions considered

Patricia Yusia stands in front of a blue painting and wall

Patricia Yusia says her community would support the reinstatement of regional travel restrictions.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Cape York was physically shut off for months and local leaders still have not ruled out reinstating travel restrictions.

Queensland’s northernmost mainland region, the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA), has one of the lowest vaccine uptakes on Cape York, with just 38 per cent of eligible residents having received a second vaccination dose.

NPA Mayor Patricia Yusia said there had already been consultations and many residents supported a reinstatement of travel restrictions if required.

“We’ll be encouraging communities to take the vaccine,” Ms Yusia said.

But Health Minister Yvette D’Ath has ruled out reinstating border closures.

“It’s certainly not an incentive to say to a community, ‘It’s OK if you’re not vaccinated, we’ll just make sure the virus doesn’t come in’,” Ms D’Ath said.

“That’s just not possible. This virus is deadly. It will absolutely make its way into our communities.”

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Race against time: The Torres Strait Islanders battling vaccine misinformation to save communities
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