Katrina Hunter puts on her protective gear and heads out to deliver food parcels in her home town of Wilcannia. The kit includes a surgical gown, a mask and gloves.
It may not be enough to protect against the Delta variant, which has infected one in seven people in the Australian remote town, but the 18-year-old is feeling braver this week. She has just received her second Pfizer shot, and her mother and siblings are also fully vaccinated. If they get sick, they should be OK.
“It’s scary,” she says. “That is how a lot of people are feeling: just scared and angry and frustrated as well. People in larger cities – they get the support they need, it’s not a struggle for them because they have more resources. I don’t think we have enough resources to help everyone.”
Covid-19 arrived in Wilcannia in mid-August. The Delta outbreak in Sydney had grown to hundreds of cases a day and the virus had spread west to the regional city of Dubbo, about 390km from Sydney and the last big service hub before you hit the outback.
By the time regional New South Wales was placed into lockdown, the virus had seeded into the tiny communities that break up the highways in the arid expanse of the far west, reaching as far as Enngonia in the north and Broken Hill in the south.
It was a foreseeable and preventable outcome. For 18 months, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities limited travel in order to buy time to shore up the health response. In March last year, the far west Aboriginal health services wrote to the federal government to ask for help to prepare. One month later, locals put up a sign saying “it is too dangerous to stop in Wilcannia”.
The peak Aboriginal health body called for greater urgency in preparing communities and rolling out the vaccine, but those calls were ignored. Despite being a priority cohort for the Australian government’s vaccine rollout, the vaccine rate of Indigenous people is considerably lower than that of non-Indigenous people in every jurisdiction except Victoria.
Despite the efforts of First Nations communities to hold back the virus, which succeeded in making Indigenous people just 0.5% of all positive Covid cases in 2020, the state and federal governments were unprepared.
More than 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have tested positive to Covid-19 since the start of June and three have died – all in western NSW.
Wilcannia, population 745, about 550km west of Dubbo, was one of the worst affected. As of Friday, there were 112 positive cases.
When the first case in the region was reported on 18 August, less than 20% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population over the age of 16 had received their first dose of a vaccine, and 8% had been fully vaccinated. As of this week, 57% of Indigenous people in the far west of NSW had received their first dose, and 19% were fully vaccinated.
Overcrowded and poorly maintained housing – the product of decades of government neglect – meant people who tested positive could not isolate themselves unless they slept outside. The community has also been targeted by conspiracy theorists and misinformation is rife.
“There are still tents up outside people’s homes,” says Jenny Thwaites, the chief executive of the Wilcannia Aboriginal land council.
“It was horrendous. When you’ve got a large number of houses with eight to 14 people in three bedrooms, you can’t isolate. We knew that when it hit it would be horrible.”
On the day the region was placed into lockdown, the Barkindji man Leroy Johnson, who manages Mutawintji national park, loaded his ute up with kangaroo meat and drove 200km into Wilcannia.
“The town was doing it pretty hard,” he says. “The shop had shut down – there’s only one little supermarket there and when it was open they’d sold out of meat. And because they were locked down they couldn’t get out to Broken Hill, which is the nearest supermarket, which is 190km east.
State government officers were not prepared to send the kangaroo meat out with the official rations but looked the other way as it was shared by locals. Johnson has repeated the delivery every two or three days, killing and preparing 15 kangaroos at a time using his traditional hunting rights and ferrying it in for the locals.
“Yesterday there was coppers and army fellas around,” Johnson says. “Not many people, everyone is locked down. It’s kind of an eerie feeling to be in town when all of that is happening. Normally when you go in you pull up and you see people and you catch up with what’s happening. It’s hard to talk to them now – I just have one person I drop off to then turn around and come back home to Mutawintji.”
The Australian Defence Force has been sent in to help with the outbreak, and there are extra police. The police have been distributing food out the back of their divvy van, but are still met with caution. “We’ve got a healthy distrust of police anyway, our mob, our people,” Johnson says.
On Monday a convoy of 30 caravans arrived in town to provide Covid-positive people a more comfortable place to isolate. It’s better than a tent, says Thwaites, but it does not make up for decades of underfunding from both federal and state governments on community housing.
The government has not released the cost of hiring the motor homes, but the average price of hiring that many caravans in the far west is $313,000 a month, plus services.
“I’m guessing they’ll probably be here for three months,” says Thwaites. “Well, at those costs, that’s three houses.”
The land council owns 62 of Wilcannia’s 220 homes, the Aboriginal housing office another 28. The former has not received substantial funding for housing since 2000, when a number of properties were knocked down and rebuilt. Five new houses were promised in April but have not yet been built. Thwaites says the community has been forgotten.
“My impression is that the government would be really happy if Wilcannia just fell off the face of the earth,” she says. “Wilcannia is a truck stop (to them) and I think they wish that’s what it would be – nothing else, just a truck stop. But they don’t seem to be able to acknowledge that it is one of the central homes of the Barkindji people, and people aren’t going to leave their traditional homes.”
The Barkindji man and land council chairman, Michael Kennedy, raised the issue of inadequate housing with the state health minister, Brad Hazzard, who made a flying visit to the town this week. Later, Hazzard said the outbreak had been a “learning experience”.
Wilcannia has been arguing for better housing and health services for decades, and warning of the risk of a coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began.
The local Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation wrote to the federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Yamatji man Ken Wyatt, in March 2020 outlining its “grave fears” if the virus were to spread out west. It says that warning was ignored.
The outbreak in Wilcannia could have happened in any number of outback communities, says Dr Jason Agostino, an epidemiologist and medical adviser to the National Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisation (Naccho).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities worked hard to protect themselves from the first wave of the pandemic. As of April 2021, there had been just 153 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among Indigenous Australians, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
“I’m really grateful that we managed to keep it out for so long,” says Agostino. “It was just an amazing effort by so many communities to keep that run going for the first 18 months of the pandemic. But we’ve seen around the world that Covid slips into where the inequalities are, and that’s what’s happened with the NSW outbreak. Because we haven’t in that 18 months done the work to address the fundamental inequalities, such as housing, that exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
— to www.theguardian.com