Keeping aboriginal clients ‘together while apart’ contributing to low covid rates

Released on 15th September 2020

Culturally-specific programs for Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander Victorians are contributing to low COVID infection rates, says community health organisation, cohealth. 

cohealth’s Billabong program has been running for 20 years, with support from City of Yarra.  The program provides weekly BBQ gatherings in Collingwood for 50+ local Aboriginal people, integrated with free health appointments and connections to a variety of partner services. 

While the Billabong gatherings have had to stop during lockdown, cohealth team leader Nellie Binmaarus, a Bardi Jawi and Nyul Nyul woman, has been keeping clients connected through weekly food drops, health check-ins and socially distanced one-on-one yarns. 

 “Not being able to gather physically is having a deep impact on the Aboriginal community. Programs like Billabong keep people spiritually connected even when they’re apart, so they’re less likely to want to leave their home,” said Ms Binmaarus. 

 “Through my weekly visits, I can also make sure my clients get up-to-date health information in the way they want it, which is often through talking,” she said.  

“I’m proud that all my Billabong clients have stayed COVID-free. I know that the work I’m doing is part of the reason for that. I’m helping them stay home, stay safe, and stay connected,” said Ms Binmaarus. 

Aunty Christine Charles has been part of the Billabong program for more than a decade, and receives weekly visits from Nellie at her Heidelberg home, where she lives alone. 

“Nellie is like my message stick. She tells me how everyone is doing. She brings groceries and face masks and tells me how to stay healthy,” said Ms Charles.  

“Not everyone uses the internet, so it’s better to get information by word of mouth. I know Nellie is someone I can trust,” said Ms Charles. 

COVID infections among the Victorian Indigenous community have stayed relatively low (65 cases as at 19 August), an outcome that cohealth Chief Executive, Nicole Bartholomeusz, says can be attributed to the work of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, and culturally safe health programs such as Billabong. 

“Community health organisations reach people who might otherwise not engage with mainstream health services,” said Ms Bartholomeusz. 

“The success of Billabong can be put down to years of relationship-building, the expertise of Aboriginal health workers like Nellie, and an ongoing focus on culturally-safe practices,” said Ms Bartholomeusz. 


— Ends — 

more information:  Lanie Harris 0418 552 377

More on cohealth: 

cohealth is a Victorian not-for-profit community health organisation that strives to improve health and wellbeing for all, with a particular focus on people experiencing disadvantage including refugees and asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness, those from non-English speaking backgrounds and people with a history of trauma. 

cohealth provides low-cost or free access to health and social services including local health and support services including medical, dental, allied health, mental health, aged care and counselling, across Melbourne’s CBD, northern and western suburbs. 

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