‘Afraid and Angry’: Warnings ignored before Delta tears Wilcannia apart | Coronavirus

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Katrina Hunter puts on her protective gear and sets out to deliver food packages to her hometown of Wilcannia. The kit includes a surgical gown, mask and gloves.

That may not be enough to protect against the Delta variant, which has infected one in seven people in the remote Australian city, but the 18-year-old is feeling braver this week. She just received her second Pfizer vaccine, and her mother and siblings are also fully immunized. If they get sick, they should be fine.

“It’s scary,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people feel: just scared, angry and frustrated too. People in the big cities – they get the support they need, it’s not a fight for them because they have more resources. I don’t think we have enough resources to help everyone.

The Covid-19 arrived in Wilcannia in mid-August. The Delta epidemic in Sydney had grown to hundreds of cases a day and the virus had spread west to the regional town of Dubbo, about 390 km from Sydney and the last major service center before to hit the outback.

By the time the regional New South Wales was placed on lockdown, the virus had spread through the tiny communities that break freeways in the arid expanse of the far west, reaching Enngonia in the north and Broken Hill South.

It was a predictable and preventable outcome. For 18 months, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities limited their movements in order to gain time to strengthen the health response. In March of last year, Indigenous Health Services in the Far West wrote to the federal government asking for help preparing. A month later, residents put up a sign saying “it is too dangerous to stop in Wilcannia”.

The leading indigenous health organization called for greater urgency in community preparedness and vaccine deployment, but those calls were ignored. Although this is a priority cohort for the Australian government’s vaccine rollout, the Indigenous immunization rate is significantly lower than that of non-Indigenous people in all jurisdictions except Victoria.

Despite the efforts of First Nations communities to contain the virus, which succeeded in ensuring that Indigenous people made up only 0.5% of all positive Covid cases in 2020, state and federal governments were not prepared.

Outback Road outside Wilcannia, NSW, Australia
A man drives his scooter through the streets of Wilcannia

More than 1,000 aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have tested positive for Covid-19 since early June and three have died – all in western New South Wales.

Wilcannia, population 745, about 550 km 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 August 18, less than 20% of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders over the age of 16 had received their first dose of the vaccine and 8% had been fully immunized. As of this week, 57% of Indigenous people in far west New South Wales had received their first dose and 19% were fully immunized.

Overcrowded and poorly maintained homes – the product of decades of government neglect – meant people who tested positive couldn’t isolate themselves unless they slept outside. The community has also been targeted by conspiracy theorists and misinformation is rife.

Motorhomes have arrived in Wilcannia Supplied by NSW Health

“There are still tents outside people’s homes,” says Jenny Thwaites, executive director of the Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council.

“It was horrible. When you have a large number of houses of eight to fourteen people in three bedrooms, you cannot isolate yourself. We knew when it hit it would be horrible. “

Weekend registration in Australia

On the day the area was closed, Barkindji man Leroy Johnson, who runs Mutawintji National Park, loaded his ute with kangaroo meat and drove 200 km to Wilcannia.

“The city was doing it pretty hard,” he says. “The store had closed – there is only a small supermarket there and when it was open there was no meat left. And because they were locked up, they couldn’t get to Broken Hill, which is the nearest supermarket, 190 km east.

Mutawintji National Park ranger Leroy Johnson comes to the outskirts of Wilcannia with Derek Harman to deliver fresh kangaroo meat to the community
  • Above: Leroy Johnson, a ranger from Mutawintji National Park, comes to the outskirts of Wilcannia with Derek Harman to deliver fresh kanagroo meat to the community
    Bottom: Sarah Donnelly, local deputy principal of Wilcannia school, leads police and defense forces as they help with food delivery

Sarah Donnelly, local deputy principal of Wilcannia school, leads police and defense forces as they help with food delivery

State government agents weren’t ready to send the kangaroo meat with the official rations, but looked away as it was shared by locals. Johnson repeated the delivery every two to three days, killing and prepping 15 kangaroos at a time using his traditional hunting rights and transporting them for locals.

“Yesterday there were cops and army guys around,” Johnson says. “Not many people, everyone is locked up. It’s kind of a weird feeling to be in town when all of this is happening. Normally when you come in you stop and see people and catch up on what’s going on. It’s hard to talk to them now – I only have one person to drop off to and then I turn around and walk home to Mutawintji.

The Australian Defense Force has been dispatched to help fight the outbreak, and there are additional police officers. Police have distributed food in the back of their van, but are still greeted with caution. “Either way, we have a healthy distrust of the police, our mobs, our people,” Johnson says.

On Monday, a convoy of 30 caravans arrived in town to provide people with HIV with a more comfortable place to isolate themselves. It’s better than a tent, says Thwaites, but that doesn’t make up for decades of federal and state underfunding for community housing.

A deserted street in Wilcannia

The government has not released the cost of renting motorhomes, but the average rental price for many campers in the far west is $ 313,000 per month, plus utilities.

“I guess they’ll probably be here for three months,” Thwaites said. “Well, at that price, that’s three houses. “

The land council owns 62 of the 220 houses in Wilcannia, the indigenous housing office has 28 others. The former has not received substantial funding for housing since 2000, when a number of properties were demolished and rebuilt. Five new homes were pledged in April but have yet to be 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 said. “Wilcannia is a truck stop (for them) and I think they wish it was what it would be – nothing else, just a truck stop. But they don’t seem to be able to recognize that it is one of the central homes of the Barkindji people, and people are not going to leave their traditional homes.

Jenny Thwaites, CEO of the Indigenous Lands Council, stands near the iconic Wilcannia Post Office

Barkindji’s man and land council chairman Michael Kennedy raised the issue of inadequate housing with state health minister Brad Hazzard, who made a whirlwind visit to the city this week. Hazzard later said the outbreak had been a “learning experience”.

Wilcannia has advocated for better housing and health services for decades and warns of the risk of a coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard meets with workers in Wilcannia at the rural fire department's first aid station, which has been set up to house rescuers

Local aboriginal health society Maari Ma wrote to the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Yamatji man Ken Wyatt, in March 2020, describing their “grave fears” if the virus were to spread to the west. He says the warning was ignored.

The outbreak in Wilcannia could have occurred in a number of communities in the hinterland, says Dr Jason Agostino, epidemiologist and medical adviser to the National Indigenous Community-Controlled Health Organization (Naccho).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have 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 thankful that we managed to keep him for so long,” says Agostino. “It was just an incredible effort on the part of so many communities to keep this running for the first 18 months of the pandemic. But we’ve seen around the world that Covid creeps in where the inequalities are, and that’s what happened with the NSW outbreak. Because we have not, in those 18 months, done the work to address fundamental inequalities, such as housing, that exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


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