With the scourge of diabetes devastating Indigenous communities, Noel Pearson has warned the problem will “really balloon” if it is not addressed immediately.
In a special edition of Q&A recorded at the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land on Saturday and rebroadcast on Monday night, the Cape York Partnership founder reflected on the death of musician Dr G Yunupingu, who died aged 46 after infrequent dialysis treatment for kidney disease.
“It is obviously cutting a swathe through our people. Diabetes is cutting a swathe throughout our communities,” Mr Pearson said.
“I don’t have any sense that we are on top of this problem. And I suspect that this problem is gonna really balloon in the future with our young people.
“If we don’t have a way of closing the gap on our diabetes problem, then we’re gonna see this continue.”
Mr Pearson said it is not as if Australia had not been warned.
“The late Kimberley politician, Indigenous politician, Ernie Bridge said we have a national crisis looming on metabolic syndrome – diabetes – amongst our people,” he said.
“And he was saying that 20 years ago, 30 years ago, that we needed to get really organised on this one.”
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Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion said while Dr G Yunupingu was receiving treatment for diabetes, the treatment required him to travel hundreds of kilometres, as there was no service available in his community on Elcho Island.
Mr Scullion agreed entirely that the development of diabetes in Indigenous communities is happening at a “geometric rate” and called it a “tsunami”.
“He would get around the community a happy man, a happy community. But he needed dialysis on one of the remote outstations, on the very, very top end of Elcho Island,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or how wealthy you aren’t, if you have to move away from your family and community to get a basic service it’s never going to be [easy].
“So if you have to live in Darwin, if you have to live next to a hospital, which is very expensive, and it’s away from your entire support group, these are the sort of circumstances under which this tragedy occurred.
“I think we’re doing reasonably well in terms of infrastructure, but it’s where it is, and it’s also ensuring instead of saying, ‘We’ve got a problem with nursing and medical staff’, it’s about training the people who live there in those communities. That’s gotta be the solution.”
‘Australian words’ under threat of dying off
Mr Pearson also said that Australia needs to formally recognise the existence of these Australian languages, or risk losing them.
“I was the main advocate for that idea, that we must first formally recognise the existence of these languages and provide support for their preservation and continuation and survival,” he said.
“Many of these languages in Australia are extremely precarious and will be lost to the planet if we don’t provide for their safety and growth and continuity.”
Meanwhile, Mr Scullion said the recognition of Australia’s first peoples and their languages would be in a better place if it were taught properly in schools.
“We wouldn’t be concerned about how that would go with the Australian people if, 10 years ago, students were learning a language where they lived, they were learning about the culture of our first Australians, they were learning about a culture the real history of dispossession, that, frankly, I don’t think many people know about.”