Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Radio – Professor Tom Calma AO

In collaboration with NITV radio, Professor Tom Calma shares his views on defeating COVID-19 and tackling tobacco.


You know when we think about COVID-19, we in Australia have been very lucky. We in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia have been super lucky. You know there's been less than 60 of our mob affected by COVID-19, which is absolutely fantastic. And in our remote communities, we've not seen any incidence with the exception of some areas up in the Kimberley where COVID-19 infections took place. But by and large we've been very lucky, and you know we need to stay really focused to make sure that we can keep COVID-19 out of our communities and our major population centres and particularly, away from our Elders, which are some of our most vulnerable. But, we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we're very vulnerable because we have what we call co-morbidities - we have other diseases and other illnesses that will make us more susceptible to getting COVID-19 or in fact even the flu epidemic. And that's why we've got to be really focussed in what we do and make sure we're always conscious that we could get sick, and if we get sick we could die with some of these big infections.

And it's quite remarkable because the predictions, just as the pandemic was reaching our shores, it was just predicted that it would wreak havoc in Indigenous communities and touch wood, none of those predictions have happened.

Well that's exactly right and it could very well have happened. But you know it's been because we've had very strong leadership within our communities, we've had our communities leading, but we've also had our peak bodies leading this whole process to make sure that we stay safe. And if you look at what's happened in other places around the world, amongst the Navajo nation in America, we've seen many many people getting sick and dying there. In South America, in Brazil, and some of those other South American communities, our Indigenous populations down there are really suffering. And in fact, we lost too many people. And we could see total tribes being wiped out. You know they don't have the sort of level of support and medical support and good leadership that's kept us from being affected. And you know all we need, is one or two people being affected and come home and then if it's not identified quickly, then we could also have the same problems over here. That's why we've got to be really, really vigilant or very aware, that if we do get a cold, if we do get the sniffles or start coughing, immediately make contact with your AMS or doctor to get tested. Because the earlier we can determine whether we've got COVID or not, the better it is for a) our treatment, but b) to stop the spread of the infection.

I was prompted to call you and have a conversation after I saw your 'Keep our mob safe' campaign and one thing that stood out for me compared to other doctors, is you mentioned something that you've been championing and campaigning against is Indigenous smoking. So this really stood out and I thought well no one else is talking about this so, time to talk about this as well.

It is a real big concern for us. You know two things, one is even before COVID-19 smoking took too many of our people. You know nearly half of our population smoke, and two in ten people will die of smoking related diseases. And smoking has an impact on our heart, our lungs, our diabetes, almost every cancer can be attributed to smoking. And it's not only whether a person smokes themselves, but it's if they're in the presence of somebody else who smokes, it's that second hand smoke hey. It can also have a big impact on us, so we've got to be very very aware that smoking is not good and neither is vaping. People think oh well we'll go on to vaping e-cigarettes because that's safer, but it won't because we know around the world, we're seeing that our lungs are compromised because people smoke. And so it does affect us. The best bit is to try and give up, and now is a great time to try and give up, especially if you're stuck at home with nothing to do. Get on the line and talk to somebody in Quit Line or download that My QuitBuddy app and listen to the stories that they tell. And there's plenty of support out there and now is a great time to do it. Because we found you know what was interesting in England United Kingdom, we found that since COVID-19 they've been talking about people affected by smoking. We've seen over 300,000 people starting to attempt to give up smoking and many of them have been very successful. You know people around the world can see the impacts, we need to also encourage our mob to give up smoking. And that's what I wanted to say. It's hard, it's an addiction. We all know how difficult it is to give up smoking if you've been a smoker, but there's a lot of support out there. We need to encourage each other to give up smoking and especially don't smoke where somebody else is beacuse they can be affected. But not only is it for our health, you know how much money people spend on cigarettes? They can spend six to eight thousand dollars a year on cigarettes and even more if you smoke a packet a day. Packet a day you're spending around about $14,000 a year which is amazing when you think about it. Because if you're a smoker you don't even think about it hey. You think I'll just have another packet of smokes, but it all adds up. And so think about what you could do if you had an extra five or ten thousand dollars in your pcoket. You know you can take your family for a holiday, you can buy things like presents for your grannies, you can do a lot of things which is much better than to take three minutes to kiss goodbye a dollar, dollar twenty. That's what you're doing when you have a cigarette.

And you're killing yourself slowly. Because smoking is a cause for many other cardiovascular diseases, cancers and other nasty things that can happen in one's body. It occurs slowly so it's not felt directly, that's why I think so many people smoke.

Yeah I know. And look I was a smoker many many years ago, I gave up forty odd years ago. 1977 I gave up so however long ago that was. A long time anyhow. And it was hard at the time but boy, after you give up you go why did I ever smoke, it is so hard. It's a challenge no doubt, but think about our health, think about our future, think about you know we want to be around when our youngins start to grow up and lead a long life. And that's the important bit about it.

That's a good motivation.

You know the other problem is, if smoking doesn't kill ya, it could really affect your whole life style. And especially if you have emphysema or one of your lung problems, can you imagine what it's like if you can only take ten or fifteen steps and you've got to stop and have a breather because you can't breath or you've got to cart around an oxygen bottle because your lungs can't feed themselves with oxygen. You know we want to enjoy ourselves, as black fellas we are dying to young. We have to really think about it and support our kids because our kids support us. They're understanding a lot more, we see that a lot less kids are smoking now than in the past. And a lot of people are giving up so it's not a totally bad news story because nothing is happening. It is because people are giving up particularly in cities and that. When we get out bush it's harder, more of our mob are smoking, so we've got to stop it. And you know one of the other things that we don't think about enough too is if you're pregnant, you should really not smoke because that not only affects your health, it affects the baby's health. And so when they're born they're already born with an addiction, and they're already born with the potential to get asthma or other respiratory problems. So we've got to do it for our future, and that's a good thing. And that also means that our partners shouldn't be smoking, full stop. But if they are going to smoke, don't smoke next to your pregnant partner or children.

And this Sunday is actually 31st of May, it's a special day dedicated to fighting and raising awareness about this scourge. 

Every year on the 31st of May across the world, we have World No Tobacco Day. And each year it's a different theme. Last year it was all about lung cancer, this year the whole theme across the world is saying don't let the tobacco companies fool you and get you to keep on smoking. Our young fellas - dont believe all the stuff that's out there about vaping or e-cigarettes being safer than smoking. It probably is safer, but it's not safe. It may be safer than smoking tobacco but it's still going to have an impact on your lungs. And the thing is about vaping, is that the research is already showing that people around the world have got lung problems because of it, but there's still not enough research to talk about the long-term impacts. Be very cautious. But the whole thing is, tobacco companies they're not out there because they love us, they're out there because they want to tell more tobacco because there's so much money for them. So we've got to remember that a lot of 'BS' is promted from tobacco companies.

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In collaboration with NITV radio, Professor Tom Calma shares his views on defeating COVID-19 and tackling tobacco.

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