Community wi-fi increasing COVID-19 vaccination uptake in a remote Aboriginal homeland

  • Gawa community members

Gawa community members at the Old School where community wi-fi has been installed by NBN Co.
As soon as the wi-fi was turned on, community members started using their smartphones to access the internet.
It also enables wi-fi calling which has increased the ability to communicate with family members and friends not located at Gawa.
Telehealth consultations were done on the veranda of the Old School (photo by Marianne St Clair).

Gawa is a remote Aboriginal community on Elcho Island, 600 kilometres from Darwin by air. There are approximately 20 adults and 46 children living in the community. The children attend the Gawa Christian School which was founded by Dr Kathy (Gotha) Guthadjaka AM and her husband Mr Colin Baker in 2004 (see Our Story). Gotha and her husband had to relocate to Darwin to access essential health services, so they can only visit their community on rare occasions. However, they remain active leaders for their community and their engagement with Gawa people has been enhanced via community wi-fi.

Gotha and Colin presented at the Digital Health for the Bush (DH4B) 2020 Forum and described the impacts of poor telecommunications on their community – particularly the young people. Following the forum, NBN Co committed to providing Gawa with community wi-fi.

Simbani Research, Visionflex and Synapse Medical supported the Gawa community and NBN Co as the service was installed at the Old School building and the first telehealth consultations were delivered. nbnTM Sky Muster Plus satellite service with managed wi-fi was installed and provided the community with a level of control over content filtering and time-of-day access. Initially, the community requested wi-fi be available from 3 to 6 pm. However, a few weeks later, the community requested availability be extended (2 to 7 pm) to expand access to services, without making the wi-fi available for children during school time.

Equipment was deployed for Gawa’s first community-driven telehealth demonstration and consultations. Community members came to see the telehealth equipment and how it worked. The children were sent to the Old School in rotation, so all the children and teachers could see telehealth in action. Seventeen members of the community had health checks supervised by an Aboriginal Nurse Practitioner located in Far North Queensland.

It is well known there is a shortage of health professionals in the Northern Territory, and this is especially true for remote locations. The Gawa community is keen to increase access to a wider range of health and allied health services via telehealth, to supplement the services provided by the local Aboriginal Medical Service and the government.

Gotha and Colin continue to advocate on Gawa’s behalf and provided an update at the DH4B 2021 Forum:

‘Just having the wi-fi out there has made a tremendous difference in the area of health at Gawa. It was such a wonderful relief to be able to talk to people back home. The people out there – you could imagine if you are living remote… you hear all these stories. One of the first urgent calls we got was in relation to COVID-19 vaccination. You're going to have a lot of questions before you decide to go ahead and let someone jab you in the arm with something you don't know anything about. We were able to tell the people at Gawa “You know the mob at Marparu have all been vaccinated – no problems whatsoever – the whole community!” That little piece of information came through the wi-fi network. The people out there are relieved to be able to get on the telephone and talk with trusted sources outside of the community. What a difference – this has been amazing!’

Being able to communicate through the community wi-fi with their trusted community leaders has provided the people at Gawa with the opportunity to have their questions answered and gain the assurances they need to have the COVID-19 vaccination.

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