COVID-19 vaccination – Mary G interview with Yarlalu Thomas

In this radio interview, Mary G speaks with Yarlalu Thomas, 2020 West Australian Young Australian of the Year, asking questions about why it's important that young Indigenous people get the COVID-19 vaccine, and why healthcare workers are a trusted and reliable source of information.


MARY G: Today I'm speaking with Yarlalu Thomas mind you, the Western Australian Young Australian of the Year 2020. And of course, Yarlalu Thomas is the first in his community to complete a high school certificate. He has completed a Bachelor of Medical Science and is now studying a Doctor of Medicine. Yarlalu also launched the UNESCO endorsed Life Languages project to translate medical terminology into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, Yarlalu mentors Aboriginal boarding students in Perth, helping them to adjust to their new lifestyle. Thanks for making time for this interview, Yarlalu and you must be the busiest man in Australia been chasing you for a long time. 

YARLALU THOMAS: Thank you Mary G for having me on your show. It's good to be a part of it. 

MARY G: Fantastic. Very inspirational young man. Can you tell us about where you are from and your upbringing in Warralong? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, so from a place called Blackfella name Gunnimurra, called Warralong, between Marble Bar and South Hedland. But yeah, sort of grew up there and all around the place but born Derby, Geraldton and went over to Queensland, following my mum around with work. And then yeah, we're talking about the high school got the degree down in Perth, study down there. But yeah, originally from Northwest Pilbara. 

MARY G: Fantastic. And what languages did you speak growing up? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah so, my community language, is Nyangumarta. And that's one of the bigger languages in the Pilbara. But yeah, bits and pieces of anything I've picked up along the way. 

MARY G: And can you tell us about your educational trajectory, it's been quite a journey for you. 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, I've been lucky enough to have been offered scholarships throughout my younger years and getting one degree down in Perth was probably the most important one. And something that I've encouraged all my cousins growing up to apply for the same thing with their families just to get that opportunity to, you know, do what I want to do and get to where I want to be. It's just important for us mob to get a world class education. So, we can take that back to the community and make changes that need to be made, out in areas that we grow up. 

MARY G: And your work with the Pilbara faces project. Can you tell us a bit a bit about this work? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, so it all started when I was on my gap year. And that was yeah, I got involved. But it's been running for a few years now where we've been working in communities to try and diagnose children with rare and genetic diseases, just through photographs. And the rare genetic disease is someone like he might have Down syndrome, which a lot of people recognize, but lots of other different diseases. And that could be up to seven to 8000 different types. So, what we've been trying to do is help families by avoiding them from having to go down to Perth, for a meeting with the doctor. And instead looking at ways in which we can just diagnose them in the communities. So, we're the first to put together a library of Aboriginal faces in this new technology with 3D imaging, just so hopefully one day that families can just get the photograph taken of the kids that they're worried about. And we can find out what the problem is and treat them and they wouldn't have to leave home. 

MARY G: Now, health statistics find COVID vaccination rates lagging in the 16–25-year-old age groups, especially among Aboriginal communities, what factors do you think are at play here? 

YARLALU THOMAS: I think that a lot of factors have contributed to this. And one being, especially in remote communities is a lack of information that's accessible in language. And I think it's also a lot to do with, you know, community, people accessing information that's reliable. It's in one talk to about it from my countrymen. Go back to the fact that, you know, you need to focus on who the information is coming from and where it comes from. So, I think looking at those, it's important to understand that in especially when health in the health area, and its simple analogy, I put it is, you know, you go to the hospital when you've got a broken leg. And I think that's the same when you look for information about COVID and any, any other conditions that you might be worried about. And it's as simple as just starting a conversation. So, I strongly encourage anyone who has any questions, to organize an appointment, and go down to the clinic, just ask whatever they're worried about. 

MARY G: And what about misinformation by outside groups, the spread of misinformation by social media, for example.  

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, and that's one thing that we saw in the Pilbara, a lot. A lot of information that wasn't reliable. You know, it was coming from different people that weren’t doctors. I think in some cases, we saw it come from anti-Semitic groups over in the US. And so, I think, yeah, it's just so important to realize that the information that we listen to, must be from the people that we call experts in that area. And so, I think it's just very important to people to understand that, you know, people who work in the health space, it’s just so important to hear what they have to say, before listening to things on Facebook or TikTok. 

MARY G: And conveying message, young people today seem to think that they may not get very sick. Do you think that that's fair to say that a lot of young people think that they're not going to get sick? 

YARLALU THOMAS: No, not at all, I think from a lot of the statistics we're seeing is that young people can get sick with COVID. And they can get really sick. And with our old people, they do get sicker. But what we also see is that young people can be the source of transmission in a way that we can spread it to our elders. And that's another thing that we have to think about when getting vaccinations is that for me, it was a lot about not so much protecting myself or that I was affected, but also my old people, you know, I didn't want them to have COVID-19. And the best way I could prevent that from happening was getting the vaccination. 

MARY G: When when you were tutoring students in Perth, are those young people speaking about COVID-19? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, they are, and things that I see which are pretty, you know, inspiring to see as an older person is that they are out there asking the questions, you know, they're not afraid to ask those questions and think for themselves. But they're doing that in a way that, you know, they're looking at the most reliable sources of information. And, you know, a lot of the times we organize it with other doctors and just sit down and have a chat about what their worries and concerns are. But in terms of all the students that are sent down to Perth, I haven't seen one yet who hasn't had the COVID vaccination. 

MARY G: And what messages do you think have most credible impact on this age group? And who's best to deliver them? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, so I think your local AMS’s, or medical centers are the best to do that there might be someone you’re familiar with, whether that be a GP or Aboriginal Health Worker. And I think, you know, it's just so important to go down to the clinic, and just have a chat about what you might be worried about and also, any concerns that you might have. And I think it's also important to have a look at maybe other Aboriginal doctors that we see across WA, and see if it might be important, and you never know, just reach out to them and see if they could help you out in any way. 

MARY G: And Yarlalu, what do you think helps to motivate young people and Torres Strait Islander Australians to get vaccinated against COVID-19? 

YARLALU THOMAS: So, I think the biggest factor, at least for me, like I mentioned before, it's just protecting our communities and protecting our old people. You know, language, you mentioned before, it’s a project that I'm involved in, and something I want to see passed down and you know, that only happens when you’ve god the old people around. So, in doing that, we need to look after them, look after our families, and the best way to do that is to get the vaccination. 

MARY G: Now, one of the amazing projects you're involved in, is the life languages project, translating medical terminology into Indigenous languages. Tell us why you think improving communication between indigenous patients, families and medical professionals, is so important, particularly during something like COVID-19?  

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, I think having a talk with a lot of people who might not have English as a first language, especially out in our communities, it's just so important to be able to discuss health matters. And I think we've seen it a lot with COVID with not being able to clearly have that, you know, yarn with, with families about why it's important to get the vaccination and ways we can, you know, prevent COVID from spreading at home and in our communities. And so, you know, that's that's inspired me to pick up this work as well as being able to have a conversation about any sort of health aspect, because I just see it so often at home and to make that change, I think it'd be so important for people to understand their health journey, and have an understanding of, of what it means for them to go through. And, you know, live a healthy life. 

MARY G: And comprehending the, the Western language and transferring that into a traditional language so countrymen can understand that it's very important, isn’t it? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, exactly. It's a lot of you know, mumbo jumbo, you might hear from a lot of doctors, and I've certainly done it before talking to patients. Well, sometimes we don't even realize we're doing it by accident in that talk doctor’s talk. And so, I think having something in place where it can automatically just help families, whether that translation be in words, or hopefully we're getting to the point where it's doing audio and video, just to help people understand their health conditions and ways going forward in terms of treatment and have a full understanding about how to get better and how to manage their lifestyle. 

MARY G: And also, it works the other way too. I mean, a lot of Western cultural people don't understand the non-verbal communication, for example, they'll talk to an Aboriginal person, an Elder, and that person will say, Hnnnn, and the white person thinks they say yes, but they're not. They're just saying Hnnnn, because they’re not sure, you know, it's understanding which Hnnnn they're using. 

YARLALU THOMAS: Exactly, exactly. And I think it's just breaking down those language and cultural barriers that have existed for so long. And you know, they haven't really been appreciated for all these years. So put that in the spotlight and make a difference. That's that's a real goal that we're planning to make change with Life Languages 

MARY G: Well people like you are going to make the change darling, that's the most important thing. As a young doctor, and WA Young Australian of the Year, what do you tell your friends and peers about the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, including the booster shot and getting our children vaccinated? 

YARLALU THOMAS: Yes, so the way the vaccination works is that we need majority of our population all across Australia to be vaccinated. And we've seen it happen before with other diseases, such as something called polio, where it's almost been eradicated and pretty much eradicated in today's world. And that's only ever happened because these are vaccinations that, you know, a lot of us get when we're babies as well. And they're very similar to the flu vaccine, for example. And so, in order to defeat this Coronavirus, it's only going to happen if everybody, old people, young people, kids all get the vaccination and and that's the best way we have a protecting ourselves and protecting our culture for future. 

MARY G: Yeah, Yarlalu you are such an inspiration to me. And look, if you're looking for a lady friend like me, I'm a I'm an old girl. But no, don't worry, about that darling. But is anything. Is there anything else you'd like to finish with Yarlalu?  

YARLALU THOMAS: Yeah, if anyone wants to participate in anything with Life Languages, the translation work that we're doing I'm more than happy to have a yarn about you and your language and possibly getting involved in some work that you want us to be involved in. It doesn't have to be anything COVID related could be something that specifically relates to your health problem or things that are based in your community. And another point is that if anyone wants to have a chat with me, I'm currently around Broome so if you ever see my face and you want to have a chat about anything related to what we've discussed today, feel free to shout out and have a chat. 

MARY G: Okay, no worries. Well, Yarlalu Thomas, mind you The West Australian Young Australian of the Year 2020.  He has completed a Bachelor of Medical Sciences now studying a Doctorate of Medicine. And of course, a very inspirational young man. Maybe one day you might be Prime Minister darling!  

YARLALU THOMAS: Oh, I'm not too sure about that. I got to get through my studies.  

MARY G: Okay, well, that's the priority, Okay, thank you very much Yarlalu.  

YARLALU THOMAS: Thank you, Mary G.

MARY G: Okay, bye.

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