Connection to Community During a Pandemic

Indigenous Health Team (l-r): Amanda Wingett, Stewart Sutherland and Kerrie Hogan Indigenous Health Team, connection during COVID19
3 August 2020

Community and cultural connections are significant contributors to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The physical distancing, brought about by the pandemic, has created challenges for many.

Being aware that the lock-down created a higher chance of disconnection, Dr Stewart Sutherland, Chair, Indigenous Health Framework from the ANU Medical School Indigenous Health Team, organised a weekly coffee catch up via Zoom with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff across the university. 

“Seeing each other and supporting each other is crucial. At nearly every catch up someone would reiterate how important being connected to 'mob' was the highlight of their day,” Ms Kerrie Hogan, Indigenous Health & Engagement Coordinator, explained. “Connection is something we highlight to students in our Indigenous Health course work and is something we’ve worked to maintain with our students during the lock-down through Zoom catch-ups.”

Indigenous Health is an integral part of the curriculum in the Doctor of Medicine and Surgery (MChD) program and is taught to all students throughout their four (4) years of studies. In addition, in year one (1), students are also given the opportunity to apply to be part of the Indigenous Health Stream, which runs over the four (4) years. 

In 2020, the Indigenous Health stream attracted 13 successful applicants, for a total of 39 students across all 4 years. These students undertake cultural immersion activities, a research project and clinical placements in remote communities, which provides deeper learning about Indigenous health, life and culture. They are also mentored by the Indigenous Health Team.

“A lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health revolves around the human experience. Face-to-face teaching allows an educator to read the class and alter or change the pace of a topic depending on how students react. This is hard to achieve over Zoom, or when lectures are taped and viewed at the student’s discretion,” Dr Sutherland said.

The pandemic has also meant cancelling many of the cultural immersion activities usually undertaken by the Indigenous Health Stream students and in rural week for second year students. Disappointingly, the six (6) week clinical placement in remote areas of the Northern Territory had to be cancelled, which is the highlight for third year students.

Despite the lack of face-to-face activities, the Indigenous Health Team have been sure to find alternative online opportunities to keep the Indigenous Health Stream students engaged, connected and learning. “The students were able to participate in a bush foods and medicine workshop that we organised through a local Wiradjuri man, Adam Shipp, the Myall Creek Massacre Online Memorial 2020, an Endeavour Voyage Exhibit offered through the Australian Museum, and the virtual screening of the movie ‘In My Blood It Runs’ which included a Q&A with the director/producer, Maya Newell," said Ms Hogan.

“It was fascinating to learn about the medicinal activities of local plants, and how they are still used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. I am really interested in how this knowledge is developed over thousands of years, and passed down through generations. It was really inspiring to hear how Adam is learning from Elders to help empower Aboriginal people with their own intellectual property and culture,” said a student who participated in the bush foods and medicine workshop.

As the COVID cases in Victoria and NSW are continuing to rise, it looks like the ability to connect in person will continue to be challenged in the second part of the year. “Each year we hold a workshop for year 1 students in semester 1 and we postponed the workshop until second semester. Now the team is trying to work out how best to run the workshop, potentially in an online forum. We won’t let the pandemic stop us from creating a great learning experience and connecting with our students”, stated Dr Sutherland.


  • Dr Stewart Sutherland, Chair, Lecturer in Indigenous Health, ANU Medical School
  • Ms Amanda Wignett, Associate Lecturer, Indigenous Health
  • Ms Kerrie Sutherland, Coordinator for Indigenous Health and Student Engagement