Podcast #7 COVID-19: Traditional Yolŋu Social Distancing Law; What to call a Virus?

Djiniyini Gondarra opens the program by asking Richard Trudgen what the phrases “physical distancing” and “social distancing” mean. These are two English concepts used in conversations about the Coronavirus that Yolngu find difficult to understand.

Richard explains what social distancing means and Djiniyini says there are 2 similar processes in Yolngu culture. One is the avoidance of some people in certain relationships, as part of the kinship structure.

The other is an intricate concept called goŋ-wukundi.

Goŋ-wukundi comes into practice under Madayin law when somebody who touches a dead body or is associated with caring for a person who has passed away, while they are in the coffin through the ceremonial process, before burial. The group looking after the deceased become goŋ-wukundi; their hands are painted with yellow, white or red ochre to distinguish them from others. People outside this group are not allowed to be near them, touch them, or touch any of the articles they’ve used like their plate or food.

Djiniyini goes on to ask what social distancing is for. Richard says it’s to stop the spread of Covid-19. Djiniyini explains how goŋ-wukundi law was for the same reason – to stop the spread of disease.  They discuss the reasons why this was in place with the law given to Yolngu by the Great Creator Wanga. This was necessary before the development of microscopes and people knew the reason why social avoidance occurred around the control of disease and sickness.

Djiniyini asks to discuss the use of the word warrakan (animal, birds, meat) when referring to live disease agents like bacteria and viruses. (Background: 20 years ago Djiniyini and Richard first began teaching germ theory with Yolngu, using microscopes and live samples. The term buwayak (invisible) warrakan was used to name bacteria so Yolngu would understand bacteria and viruses are a living disease agent that can multiply and cause problems in the body.)

In this program Djiniyini wants to discuss the use of the word warrakan as he now feels it gives Yolngu an unclear image. Djiniyini and Richard begin to discuss the use of the words buwayak (invisible) rerri (sickness). This investigation is important and is a genuine and valid process when any cultural group starts to appropriate new terminology and words into their language. This dialogue gives people mental images to associate with the word virus. Currently the word virus only gives Yolngu the image of the actual word itself (v i r u s). Now they can get the image of an active disease agent.

There is also a discussion about the characteristics of the virus; how it is tiny, how it’s difficult for scientist to develop a vaccine because they are still trying to discover all its characteristics and its modus operandi.

In the last section of the program Richard asks Djiniyini to explain the concept from the last program – ḏilthan.

Dilthan is a process where Yolngu take particular trees and plants and crush them and then throw that product into the water. This is especially so in deepwater, “we can’t get there to fish with a spear, has in the marrandil”. The chemical from these trees and plants kill the fish and they rise to the top of the water, but the fish are still edible. Dilthan is also when people get sap on their skin from a particular tree  ganyawu, rrayung, bunydjarrnga (same tree different names) and don’t wash it off quickly. The skin swells up (bolbolyun) and sometimes small infected, watery heads appear.

Djiniyini and Richard discuss how medical companies are trying to find the right chemical to ḏilthan this virus. They explore the 2 ways that are being considered. One way that will destroy the virus and a second way which involves finding a chemical that blocks or renders useless the spines in the little arms of the virus that can inject its chemical into body cells to make more viruses.

This is the first part of our series that introduces people to how the virus replicates. Djiniyini and Richard promise to return and talk more about how the virus actually makes people sick.


There are 4 Stories in this podcast. Please see time stamps below:

  • Story No. 1 Traditional Yolŋu Social Distancing Law 0:00
  • Story No. 2 No microscopes before 12:10
  • Story No. 3 What to call a Virus 23:30
  • Story No. 4 Looking for the right medicine to stop coronavirus 31:50


Click on the links below to listen to the other podcasts in our COVID-19 series: 

Please note: Podcasts 1 & 2 are not currently available online due to the unfortunate death of one of our presenters.