ISOLATION. It’s almost three months since a priest has visited the Catholic faithful of Coen, a remote indigenous community in far north Queensland.
Usually in the first week of each month, Augustinian Fr Robert Greenup packs his swag and drives 500km to Coen, along the partly-dirt Peninsula Developmental Road, that stretches deep into the Cape York Peninsula.
His travel companion is Indigenous Deacon Ralph Madigan, who he works closely with in the Mareeba Catholic parish, west of Cairns.
“I think it will be a while before we can get up there (Coen) again,” Fr Greenup said.
“And I think some of the people are getting a bit toey about being so isolated.”
A roadblock about 40 kilometres outside Mareeba, prevents motorists driving north to any of the Far North’s isolated indigenous communities.
Travel restrictions apply for all land, sea and air journeys.
Coen, situated in the centre of Cape York Peninsula, was set up in the 1860s as a gold-mining town.
It later developed as an Aboriginal community and has a population of about 400.
In the town’s Our Lady of the Way Church, Fr Greenup routinely celebrates Mass with about 20 parishioners, although sometimes Mass sizes can reach 60.
But now Coen and other remote communities are in lockdown as part of precautions under the Biosecurity Act to protect vulnerable populations.
The fear is that COVID-19 could still inflict a greater toll in remote indigenous communities due to limited access to medical care.
In the community of Yarrabah outside Cairns, tensions boiled over earlier this month with police called in to break up an angry protest.
Residents there have been forced to quarantine for two weeks if they leave and try to return – even if it is a short shopping trip.
The lockdown means that Fr Greenup’s travel to remote communities could be on hold for many months.
“I’ve been living an almost monastic life here – a more structured prayer life, more time for reading, and as of last week we went back to saying Mass in the church at all the normal Mass times, but with a strict limit of 10 people,” he said.
“We’re running a system now that if people want to go to Mass they can ring up and book in. That’s working alright.”