The Guardian • Issue #1988

NSW police block efforts to protect remote Indigenous communities

It has been brought to light that one of NSW’s most senior police officers influenced the state government to reject proposed health measures designed to protect remote Indigenous communities. The measures, drafted by NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant in 2020, would allow communities to voluntarily decide if they wanted to enter into strict lockdowns or not, thereby restricting movement in and out of the towns. These lockdowns would be aided by the police and military, in line with federal emergency laws.

However, NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Gary Worboys torpedoed the plan in a leaked email, stating that it would be effectively “impossible” to enact the measures. Yet Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory all managed to implement these measures, recognising remote communities as critically vulnerable and therefore making them a priority in their pandemic response plans. One could claim that the success of the programs enacted by other states and territories is simply because they have had lower case numbers than Victoria and NSW, but the slow and uneven lockdown measures of the latter state has meant that the virus was easily able to spread out into rural areas, leaving at least 15 Indigenous people dead and over 6,000 infected in NSW.

Deputy Police Commissioner Worboys even questioned if Indigenous communities supported the measure, wilfully deaf to the many Indigenous leaders and health services that called for the badly needed support. It has been very clearly shown in the numbers that this support was needed. The Delta outbreak is disproportionately concentrated in Indigenous communities, who despite only making up three per cent of the population account for twenty-two per cent of active cases. During the consultation phase, conducted by both NSW Health and NSW Police, the large majority of Indigenous communities supported the measures, while a small number opposed them on the grounds that they didn’t want restrictions placed on their movement.

These measures were not revisited during the state’s current Delta outbreak, causing the aforementioned surge in cases among those communities and adding further strain to those communities’ often underfunded health resources. In a statement released by NSW Health on 9th November 2021, they stated that after “consideration of the social and economic impacts,” they had decided not to implement the control order that would allow communities to adopt the restrictions. Apparently people’s lives don’t factor into “social impacts.” Instead, NSW Police decided to adopt what they called COVID-19 “community action plans.” These action plans, however, were woefully enacted, as evidenced by the far western NSW town of Wilcannia, the town the hardest hit by COVID-19 in Australia, to give but one example. Despite repeated requests from community leaders, with the backing of the local Aboriginal health corporation and the local state MP, for extra support and for access to be restricted to the town, the NSW Police failed to act.

This flagrant dismissal of Indigenous voices is yet another example of the contemptuous way in which police, all across the country, treat Indigenous people. These are not isolated incidents but part of a broader structural problem that continues to materially denigrate the lives of indigenous people. There can be no justice or peace while indigenous people continue to be treated in this way.

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