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U.S. white supremacists blamed for targeting Aboriginal Australians with coronavirus vaccine misinformation

Anthony Elwood, an Aboriginal agriculture worker, waits in a town hall in Wilcannia, Australia, after receiving a coronavirus vaccine. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)
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The leader of Western Australia has blamed white supremacists in the United States for spreading online misinformation about coronavirus vaccines among Aboriginal people in his state.

Premier Mark McGowan, whose state is home to the city of Perth, told reporters Thursday that the groups did not have the best interests of Australia’s First Nations people at heart and “wouldn’t be unhappy if bad outcomes occurred” to them. He urged Indigenous people to listen to medical experts about vaccines instead.

McGowan said he was made aware of the misinformation by local leaders. A senior Aboriginal affairs official in Western Australia, Wanita Bartholomeusz, said some misinformation was coming from Facebook groups, including one that had a cover image of former U.S. president Donald Trump. She also said inaccurate information is being relayed to Aboriginal communities and that the material was linked back to groups in the United States, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC).

Nearly 88 percent of Australians age 16 and older have been fully immunized as of Thursday, government data shows. Western Australia has largely kept the coronavirus at bay, but it has the lowest two-dose immunization rate in the country, with just over 77 percent of those 16 and above fully vaccinated.

But the vaccination rate for Indigenous people is much lower, at roughly 63 percent for those over 16. (Leonora, a town in Western Australia, has immunized just 13 percent of Aboriginal residents, according to the ABC.)

Some remote communities lack access to certain health-care facilities. In one notable instance, Walgett, which has a sizable Indigenous population and is about 400 miles northwest of Sydney, was forced into lockdown just two days after it detected its first case in August. The town’s hospital has no intensive care unit, and seriously ill patients have to be flown three hours by helicopter to another city for treatment.

‘There is panic’: Outback outbreak rings covid alarm for Australia’s Indigenous people

Experts have warned since the early days of the pandemic that the coronavirus could overrun the country’s Indigenous communities, which suffer from higher rates of chronic health issues and a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians, particularly in remote areas. Like many other First Nations people around the globe, Indigenous Australians have a painful history with infectious diseases.

Though the United States and Australia are thousands of miles apart, numerous comparisons have been made between the two countries during the coronavirus pandemic. The latter’s onetime “zero covid” policies and vaccine mandates have been attacked by conservatives, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in October lamenting “covid tyranny” in Australia’s Northern Territory.

But the policies have largely managed to keep Indigenous communities safe during the pandemic, even though the delta variant infected relatively large numbers of Aboriginal people living in some remote but overcrowded places.

Read more:

‘Covid hit us like a cyclone’: An Aboriginal town in the Australian Outback is overwhelmed

How Native Americans launched successful coronavirus vaccination drives: ‘A story of resilience’