What the Indigenous Voice can Teach us About Surviving COVID-19

Indigenous peoples have encountered mass death due to diseases like small pox since colonisation. While populations were decimated, survival prevailed.

Wide-scale restrictions on movements, fear. panic and uncertainty about when our home, work and social life will go back to normal; this is the Australia that we live in today.


It’s a reality that Indigenous Australians have lived before; as young Aboriginal peoples reflect on the memory of ancestors moved off their country, losing family and land, and ultimately their freedom. The result has been many generations of trauma and disadvantage.


Today, many Indigenous communities are again living in fear and in isolation due to their increased vulnerability to COVID-19 from higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes, asthma to autoimmune problems.


How we come out of this pandemic, and others like it, will depend on how well we work together to save lives and land and ensure long-term prosperity.


Sian Hromek, Indigenous Specialist Services Consultant at WSP reveals the lessons we can learn from Indigenous communities to get back on track. She says, “I was yarning with my sister Dr. Danièle Hromek about the resilience of Indigenous communities. She raised the point that they generally put society before the individual or 'we before me'. Meanwhile, modern cultures often uphold the importance of the individual and the individuals’ rights before the collective community.


“This health pandemic is forcing us all to change our behaviour and consider the importance and value in putting the wellbeing of the community and our lands before the rights of the individual.


“One way Indigenous peoples consider the needs of the collective is to look after every living thing within the ecosystem including the air, water and land – from a small fish and giant tree to the people living in that Country.


“Moving towards an approach that protects both the community and the land also makes scientific sense. It supports biodiversity in our ecosystem and contributes to its overall health and resilience. Reduced biodiversity allows for pathogens and viruses to take hold as happens in a monoculture.


“One of the ways to harness this Indigenous knowledge and stop the decline of biodiversity is through looking after Country in the way that it needs to be looked after. This can be done by consulting and working with the traditional custodians, forming partnerships with them to co-create a modern pathway that will support the renewal of Indigenous land management philosophy and techniques.


“The outcome is simple really. By supporting this type of relationship people are engaged in looking after Country, which in turn looks after people and everything within that Country. It is a reciprocal, ongoing multigenerational relationship that over time will enhance wellbeing of all. Healthy Country = Healthy People. Unhealthy Country = Unhealthy People.


“To ensure we are prepared for any future natural or man-made disasters, it is useful to understand the past. Crucially, we need to engage with Indigenous led land management so that the unique attributes, stories and culture that directly relate to the area are upheld and maintained. Traditional custodians are best placed to inform and guide society into the future as they have a direct link to the past history of specific places and observe reoccurring patterns and events such as floods, landslips, erosion and other temporal hazards that may not be obvious to recent societies. For example, the towns of Murwillumbah and Lismore in Northern NSW are located by rivers in the middle of large flood plains. Historically, this suited the cedar cutters as they used the river to transport the logs to the sea. However, these towns are dangerously placed due to destructive floods that occur every 50-100 years. If asked hundreds of years ago, the traditional owners may have shared their local knowledge and suggested that the permanent settlements be located in a safer place saving years of ongoing loss and hardship to those affected.


One of the ways WSP achieves this, is through the use of the Australian Indigenous Design Charter, that provides a framework to work within. By following these guidelines, we can be confident that we are working with communities and clients in a way that is positive for all involved. Our work includes an investigation into the Country where WSP have projects to help understand the unique attributes of that area, the people and their culture. This investigation provides a cultural competency document for the project team to learn more plus it gives the design team an opportunity to engage with traditional custodians to work together in finding design solutions that relate to the designs and features of the culture and Country. In this way, we honour the past and look to a positive future, walking together with the original people of this land.


Australian Indigenous Design Charter:

  1. Indigenous-led. Ensure Indigenous representation creation in design practice is Indigenous-led.
  2. Self-determined. Respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples to oversee representation creation of their culture in design practice.
  3. Community specific. Ensure respect for the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture by following community specific cultural protocols.
  4. Deep listening. Ensure respectful, culturally specific, personal engagement behaviours for effective communication and courteous interaction are practiced.
  5. Impact of design. Always consider the reception and implications of all designs so that they are respectful to Indigenous culture.
  6. Indigenous knowledge. Respectfully ask the client if there is an aspect to the project, in relation to any design brief, that may be improved with Indigenous knowledge.
  7. Shared knowledge (collaboration, co-creation, procurement). Develop and implement respectful methods for all levels of engagement and sharing of Indigenous knowledge (collaboration, co-creation, procurement).
  8. Legal and moral. Demonstrate respect and honour cultural ownership and intellectual property rights, including moral rights, and obtain appropriate permissions where required.
  9. Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Develop a RAP incorporating the Australian Indigenous Design Charter.
  10. Charter implementation. Ensure the implementation of the Australian Indigenous Design Charter to safeguard Indigenous design integrity.


About the Author

Siân is a proud Budawang woman of the Yuin Nation who lives in the Northern Rivers of NSW. For WSP clients and staff, Siân researches the rich history and living culture of people who belong to land WSP works on.


Siân helps develop Aboriginal Design Principles (ADP) that guide and inform design solutions. Project teams use ADPs for cultural competence training, and to build confidence when engaging with Indigenous communities to gain local knowledge Traditional Custodians may offer to inform design solutions. The myriad benefits provide competitive advantage to WSP and business and employment opportunities to Indigenous communities.


Since 2019, Siân has been a Director on the board of the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation (ICN-8778), which helps Traditional Custodians reinvigorate and reapply cultural burning practices to repair and strengthen Country and community. The Firesticks Alliance partners with communities, the private sector, governments and not for profits.