A decision to cancel Australia’s premier Indigenous event – The Garma Festival – in remote Arnhem Land, has been met with shock, regret, and sadness.
The festival was voluntarily cancelled last year due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, but organisers had hoped the COVID safety plan they had been working on for six months with NT health authorities would allow for this year’s Garma to go ahead.
Hosted by the Youthu Yindi Foundation (YYF) as a celebration of Yolngu culture, the Garma Festival takes place over four days from July to August and is one of the largest forums for discussion of Indigenous affairs.
In a statement the Foundation said they accepted the Northern Territory government’s decision with “enormous regret and sadness”
“Unfortunately, the NT’s Chief Health Officer has determined that Gulkula’s remote location poses too many logistical and safety challenges in the unlikely event of a COVID incident, such as the difficulty of evacuating people from the site, and the unsuitability of quarantine facilities in northeast Arnhem Land.”
“Keeping the region COVID-free has always been YYF’s number one priority, so we accept the CHO’s decision, which also highlights the logistical and infrastructure challenges that exist in relation to any COVID outbreak in the remote Aboriginal world,” the statement read.
“Garma is a cherished event on the Yolngu calendar and the cancellation of this year’s event is a big blow to the local community in many ways.”
But Garma’s lead organiser and YYF Chief Executive, Denise Bowden told the ABC, she was “shocked” at the rejection of the festival’s COVID safety plan so close to the planned event.
“We have actually put in place an incredibly comprehensive COVID plan from issues such as introducing a 24-hour COVID clinic on site for our attendees staffed by the National Critical Care & Trauma Response Centre. Social distancing, we’ve put in intensive screenings [all interstate attendees were to be tested upon arrival in Arnhem Land], security measures – we’ve run a drone over the entire site to monitor site capacity and attendees, Traffic flow – we’ve cut back on limited tickets by 50 per cent and implemented contact tracing procedures.”
Ms Bowden said she was confident that these and other safety measures were rigorous enough to all but eliminate the public health risk associated with staging the event and believed it was the NT government’s own resources that were deficient.
The economic loss to local Territory businesses and the Yolngu people is expected to be significant again this year with the Garma Festival estimated to bring $5 million to the Nhulunbuy and surrounding communities.
Ms Bowden said they had already sold 1600 tickets and was disappointed in the handling of the situation.
“If there would have been any ability to have been notified sooner, then we wouldn’t have had to financially spend and commit to the festival going ahead, if at the end of the day it was going to be about capacity and resources on site,” Ms Bowden said.
Image supplied by the Yothu Yindi Foundation