COVID-19: Gov’t negligence puts First Nations communities at risk

September 4, 2021
North west NSW's First Nations communities are now being badly impacted by the virus.

Government neglect means that the COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately affecting First Nations communities in regional New South Wales.

State and federal governments had promised to prioritise the vaccine roll-out to First Nations people, but this has not happened.

The lack of planning and action means that the Delta strain is now spreading through western and north-western NSW, severely impacting peoples from the Yuwaalaraay, Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan, Ualarai, Ngiyampaa, Barkindji, Gamilaroi and the Wilyakali/Wiljaali lands.

At the time of writing, the Western NSW Local Health District (LHD) reported that 561 people are infected, 65% of whom are First Nations people.

A man in his 50s from Dubbo died on August 30, the first First Nations person in regional NSW to die from the virus. Between June and August, 400 First Nations people in NSW have become infected.

The legacy of colonialism means that First Nations communities already suffer disproportionately high rates of chronic disease and are, understandably, vaccine hesitant. This makes the substandard vaccine planning and roll out in regional NSW all the more criminal.

Legacy of colonialism

Wilcannia, home to the Barkandji people, has the lowest life expectancy in Australia, just 38 years.

Wilcannia’s health and medical services are struggling to cope with COVID-19; they are also facing severe shortages of basic necessities and services.

By late August, the town recorded 73 cases, about 10% of the town’s population of 720 residents. It is the highest transmission rate in the state.

Barkindji woman and Wilcannia resident Monica Kerwin-Whyman told The Guardian: “They don’t have a Covid plan here, they don’t have ventilators.” She said a COVID-19 positive woman was turned away from the local hospital and forced to wait in the cold.

Kerwin-Whyman also said that residents are not able to obtain basic foodstuffs, with one family in crisis being told to “go ring Uber Eats”. The closest centre providing takeaway and deliveries is Broken Hill, 200 kilometres away.

Wilyakali woman Taunoa Bugmy, from Broken Hill, has set up the Far West NSW Fresh Fruit & Veggie Covid-19 GoFundMe appeal for food and essential services on behalf of Aboriginal-run health corporation Maari Ma. More than $300,000 has been donated so far. Others are using the Wilcannia Central School as a base to distribute care packages, learning packages and supermarket orders.

While additional health workers, Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel and police have been deployed to Wilcannia, it is too little, too late.

Families in overcrowded housing are trying to isolate together, with some resorting to erecting tents in their yards to isolate. In Wilcannia, motel accommodation has only just started to be organised, along with the opening of two caravan parks.

Leah Ebsworth, a Barkanji local, told Green Left that some local people skilled in surviving in the surrounding river country have self-isolated in the bush with family members.

Warnings given

Maari Ma wrote to Ken Wyatt, the federal minister responsible, in March last year asking for immediate assistance for north-west NSW towns. The health service warned that “urgent and drastic action” was needed to avoid an outbreak in the region, and that the federal government must help in “setting-up fully functioning isolation/quarantine facilities and organising services to enable people to properly isolate at home”.

Epidemiologist and Wakka Wakka and Wulli Wulli man Dr Peter Malouf told ABC Radio National on August 31 that, although the federal government had had 18 months to prepare for outbreaks in rural areas, “there was no plan to roll out the vaccines to Aboriginal communities and no execution of any plan despite the government stating that they were a priority population”.

Malouf also questioned why the Aboriginal Health Service was never consulted. “When will the government listen to us?”, he asked.

A “ring of steel” around Sydney, like the one placed around Melbourne’s CBD during that city’s lockdown last year, could have stopped the spread of the Delta variant to regional NSW.

In mid-July, an infected truck driver visited Orange and the government declared an initial week of lockdown for the Orange Local Government Area (LGA) and the adjacent Blayney and Cabonne LGAs, but not for other major regional towns.

As of September 3, Dubbo had recorded 487 COVID-19 cases, Walgett LGA had six cases and Brewarrina LGA had 12.

Scott McLachlan, the chief executive of the Western NSW LHD, told The Guardian that “the large proportion of the new cases, and our total cases, are Aboriginal people both in Dubbo and Walgett and many of those are children”.

NSW health minister Brad Hazzard has only now called on the federal government for help in securing an urgent supply of Pfizer to First Nations communities in north-western NSW. It has now sent an extra 7000 Pfizer doses, as well as ADF detachments to Walgett.

Aboriginal Medical Services in the region said they were running short of vaccines even before the infections started in August. Orange Aboriginal Medical Service chief executive Jamie Newman told the ABC's 7.30 on August 26: “We pleaded for more supplies of vaccine for weeks before cases were confirmed in Orange.”

Newman criticised the federal government for sending an ADF detachment to Walgett, saying it was “likely to be harmful” given “multi-generational trauma from colonisation and the NT ‘Intervention’.”

He said that the ADF detachment did not consult the Orange Aboriginal Medical Service, “who could then consult with local Indigenous community leaders and work out a plan of working together on rolling out medical solutions for the Covid outbreak”.

Crisis worsens

Kaail Bohm, a First Nations pharmacist based in Dubbo, told GL that after he heard some communities could not access vaccines he visited them to “talk about myths and false information, such as vaccines having microchips which allow government control”. He also gave vaccines to those who wanted one.

Bohm said there had been a rise in mental health problems. Services that help mental health patients, such as “preventative medicine [clinics], and community medicine centres, are all closed down in a lockdown”, he said.

The bigger demand for help during lockdown has also put strain on medical centres and pharmacies, Bohm said. “The sheer number of phone calls into the pharmacy and other small businesses in Dubbo is through the roof … and there is not the staff to answer all queries. Administering scripts emailed or faxed by doctors requires more labour than a paper script handed in over the counter.”

Things are no better in Walgett. As Gamilaroi Elder Uncle Victor Beale told the ABC: “I thought Walgett was one of the safest places on earth ... [but now] there’s a lot of anxious people.” Aunty Marie Denis Kennedy, another Gamilaroi elder, told the ABC: “There’s no sort of protection for us”.

The Dharriwaa Elders Group at Walgett called on August 12 for “more trained nurses” to administer vaccines and provide broader support for Aboriginal Medical Services. The group said motel rooms needed to be made available urgently for homeless people and those needing to isolate.

The Dharriwaa Elders Group called for Aboriginal Medical Services to lead the mobile testing and vaccination options. It said resources needed to be provided for wellbeing checks, and that essential items such as medication, food boxes, masks and water supplies should be distributed by community members.

Tiff Winters from the Brewarrina Land Council told GL: “The community is looking after itself, with two testing clinics operating, with lines of people waiting, an amazing effort. Services [have been] doing an impeccable job for 12 days straight.”

Low vaccination rate

Despite an abundance of community solidarity, low vaccination rates are a problem. Around 86% of First Nations people in the Brewarrina area are aged under 60. They are worried about getting the AstraZeneca vaccine due to the bungled messaging about its safety. Meanwhile, younger people have not been able to access the Pfizer vaccine. All this adds to vaccine hesitancy.

Doreen McHughes, vice-chair of the First Nations-led Ngemba Community Working Party (NCWP) in Brewarrina, told GL that community members were relying on friends and donations for COVID-19 essentials such as hand sanitiser and masks, and that there was no emergency food available.

McHughes said that there were still no travel restrictions through Brewarrina, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission. “Everyone is still coming through Brewarrina and stopping at the Brewarrina service station”, she said. “[They] still are not stopping people coming through.”

McHughes described how vaccine hesitancy was linked to First Nations communities’ experience of systemic racism. She said she was concerned about getting the vaccine “because of the history of the government’s treatment of us”.

“I don’t believe what the system says”, she said. “I have watched the demise of my people … these problems are created by the system. The system is the reason why our people are in these circumstances. So, yes, I have grave reservations about the vaccine.”

McHughes said one First Nations health worker had visited her to talk about getting vaccinated, but other than that, “No one has talked properly to us, no one has said, `Come and sit down and we can talk through all your questions'. So [that] means there are people listening to the conspiracy theories.”

McHughes wants a taskforce set up to help First Nations communities in Brewarrina. The town “never [had] a taskforce” because the community was “never considered important enough”, she said.

The government’s willful neglect of north-western NSW First Nations communities is reprehensible. A First Nations-led medical response is necessary to accommodate, isolate, test and vaccinate community members. Only First Nations medical teams will be able to sensitively address concerns around vaccinations.

[Donations to the Far West NSW Fresh Fruit & Veggie COVID-19 can be made here. Follow Maari Ma for updates. Rachel Evans, Paul Oboohov and Coral Wynter are Water for Rivers activists.]

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