Australia restricts travel to remote indigenous areas to slow coronavirus

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia urged people on Wednesday to avoid traveling to remote indigenous areas to curtail the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in communities that suffer disproportionately low rates of healthcare and income.

As part of a wide-ranging list of “social distancing” measures to stop the illness being spread, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government planned to issue a list of hard-to-reach places where people should avoid going.

“There are parts of this country that it would not be wise for people to visit,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“Just as it is important for people to not visit aged care facilities in large numbers, it is also important they’re not visiting remote indigenous communities or remote parts of the country,” he added.

Morrison gave the directive as part of a sweeping list of restrictions on Australian life that he said may last six months or longer in a bid to contain a flu-like virus that has now infected nearly 500 people in the country and led to five deaths.

While most of Australia’s 25 million people live in or near cities, about 120,000 indigenous people live in remote communities, according to official figures, making it harder for them to access healthcare and harder for health workers to reach them. Such communities are among the most impoverished in the country.

The country’s healthcare resources already face heightened pressure as governments roll out “fever clinics” to conduct mass testing for the illness formally called COVID-19. Morrison said the government would remove practicing restrictions on about 20,000 nursing students so they could join the response.

Indigenous health workers had called for the travel restrictions to remote areas and also requested the federal government to extend the order to include a shutdown of all non-essential services.

“We have a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the spread of the virus into our communities,” said Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory CEO John Paterson.

Northern Territory is home to much of Australia’s indigenous population.

“As the funder and contract managers of these non-essential programmes, the Australian Government must exercise its duty of care to actively direct all non-essential service providers to cease all access to remote communities unless there are extenuating circumstances,” he said in a statement.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan