The Guardian • Issue #1976

Covid crisis in outback NSW: Indigenous communities at risk

The COVID crisis deepened this week as New South Wales began recording over 800 cases a day, and regional Victoria went back into lockdown. State governments are scrambling to contain the Delta variant, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Case numbers in both Victoria and New South Wales continue to rise, leaving many scared and frustrated.

In NSW, the issue is partly a factor of geography. New South Wales spans over 801,000 square kilometres and has the largest population in the country. But geography also seems to be providing a convenient smokescreen for the “out of sight, out of mind” approach of the NSW state government to some of its most at risk residents: Indigenous people living in remote communities in the far west of the state.

Recent data from the federal government shows that, as of the 15th of August this year, just twenty-nine per cent of Australia’s eligible Indigenous population have received one dose of COVID vaccine, falling well behind the forty-seven per cent national average. For those who have received two doses, the number is fifteen per cent compared to a national average of twenty-five per cent. In western NSW, this number is an abysmal eight per cent.

Meanwhile, the virus is tearing through remote and regional communities in New South Wales with high Indigenous populations such as Dubbo, Broken Hill, Wilcannia, and Walgett. In the latter town, on Wailwan country, there are just four hospital beds to accommodate the town’s 6,000 residents, of whom thirty per cent are Indigenous.

As Al Jazeera so succinctly phrased it, the outbreak in New South Wales is a “crisis within a crisis” for Indigenous Australians. Many remote communities in outback NSW are under-resourced and poverty stricken, and these problems are compounded for Indigenous inhabitants.

Chronic housing shortages, poverty and poor health outcomes make the virus particularly dangerous for the Indigenous populations in these remote towns. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that life expectancy for Indigenous people is around ten years lower than that of the rest of the Australian population and they are at higher risk of a number of diseases.

There is also a chronic shortage of housing in remote communities meaning that many Indigenous people in such communities live in crowded conditions, often with their entire extended family. Not only that, outback NSW is home to some of the poorest postcodes in the country, with some of the highest rates of unemployment. For example, just 93 km to the east of Walgett lies Australia’s poorest postcode, Burren Junction, where the average income is $9,735 per year.

Dubbo Mayor Stephen Lawrence summed it up best when he said:

“Lockdowns mean different things to people living in a nice house in the city to those in the country living with large family groups in crowded housing estates.”

Lack of access to adequate pandemic protections in remote NSW has implications far beyond its borders. Towns like Mildura, on the Victorian side of the Victoria-NSW border, fear that the “border bubble” may mean cases in NSW are able to cross the border. Although it is 300 km to the south, Mildura is the closest major town to Broken Hill (on Wiljali country), where the most recent regional outbreak occurred.

On Thursday, the Sunraysia Daily reported that the Mallee District Aboriginal Service (MDAS), would have unlimited Pfizer vaccines to vaccinate the Mildura community and surrounds in an effort to provide a buffer against the NSW outbreak. Similar efforts are ongoing along the border, with the Victorian government diverting more resources to regional centres.

It is no answer to try to contain the virus by putting a hard border between Victoria and New South Wales. Many remote communities in western NSW depend on Victorian border towns for vital supplies. Towns like Wentworth, on Barkindji country 30 km north of Mildura, depend on access to larger towns on the Victorian side of the border for healthcare and amenities that are unavailable or much harder to access in the outback. The border bubble is vital for the continued survival of remote communities. Such a measure would only compound the lack of access to resources in far west NSW.

Part of the reason for poor vaccination outcomes among Indigenous people in western NSW is poor messaging around the safety of vaccines. You don’t have to look very far afield to see that this hesitancy has leaked into all sectors of the population. Over the weekend of 21-22 August, violent anti-lockdown protests erupted in both Melbourne and Sydney, with a vocal proportion of attendees voicing concern over the safety of vaccines. But in the outback, the problem isn’t just hesitancy, it’s a lack of resources, coupled with systemic racism, discrimination in access to healthcare for Indigenous Australians.

First Nations elders have been urgently calling on the NSW government for more nurses, PPE, resources for housing and isolation and above all, more vaccines. It took until Saturday 21, after NSW had recorded up to 670 cases per day, when seventy armed forces personnel were sent out to enforce lockdowns and oversee vaccination in these towns (for a discussion of the problems inherent in over-policing of COVID restrictions in working class communities see the editorial in Guardian #1973 “Working Class Over-Policed, While The Rich Enjoy Freedom”).

But as one community elder in the town of Wilcanna, on Danggali country, has said, isolating at home makes no sense in the conditions that most of these communities face. Long term resources and infrastructure are needed to address the underlying disadvantages that put Indigenous people at a higher risk of contracting the virus: more housing, more hospital beds and staff, better access to healthcare services, and better employment opportunities.

The Communist Party of Australia calls upon all state and federal governments, but especially the NSW state government, to act immediately to provide long-term structural support to remote and regional communities. Indigenous Australians are one of the most at risk groups in this pandemic. Outback communities urgently need healthcare infrastructure, adequate housing, PPE, vaccine supplies and healthcare staff. There is no quick fix in this situation. From Double Bay to Wilcannia, healthcare is a human right and should be made freely available to all.

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