Covid-19: “urgent action” needed to support Wilcannia’s Indigenous community

A sign welcoming visitors to Wilcannia. Photo: Indigenous-Aboriginal Party of Australia/Facebook.

By PETER HACKNEY

The deteriorating Covid-19 situation in Wilcannia requires urgent action from both the state and federal governments, including the delivery of resources to support the local Aboriginal community, the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) has warned.

The nation’s peak body for social workers says entrenched discrimination and the pandemic have combined to create a “disaster” in Wilcannia, a town with a large proportion of Indigenous residents located 956km north-west of Sydney and 196km east of Broken Hill.

According to NSW Health, there are currently 67 active cases of Covid-19 in the 2836 postcode, centred on Wilcannia, which recorded a population of 549 at the 2016 Census.

“Wilcannia demonstrates how ongoing discrimination and entrenched neglect of First Nations peoples, when combined with a national and global crisis creates a perfect storm that has the most shocking impacts and outcomes for Australia’s most marginalised,” AASW board member Professor Sue Green said in a media statement.

Prof Green said the AASW was appalled to learn that a young Barkindji mother of three small children, asthmatic and infected with Covid-19, was recently barred from entering Wilcannia Hospital at night. 

The failure to treat the woman highlighted the issues facing the area, she said.

“The treatment of Barkindji and other Aboriginal peoples who have made it their home is appalling by anyone’s standards and should be unacceptable to every Australian. The stories that are flooding out of Wilcannia of mistreatment of Aboriginal people should make everyone stand up and demand action immediately,” Prof Green said. 

“People in Sydney are told to ring an ambulance if their health deteriorates, but in Wilcannia, Aboriginal people are refused treatment. 

“This is simply not good enough.” 

Prof Green said the crisis was having a resounding impact on local Aboriginal people, who are especially vulnerable due to a high incidence of poverty and poor health.

“We are hearing stories of Aboriginal people isolating in tents in backyards during the cold desert nights, people who are unable to access food because the supermarket is closed for deep cleaning, or being fined for leaving isolation to get food, because they have nothing to eat.

“They are crying out, ‘Why are we being left to die?’” said Prof Green, who is a Galari woman of the Wiradjuri nation and the AASW’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Director.

‘Wilcannia abandoned’ 

Her comments echo a front-page editorial in the 25 August issue of Broken Hill-based newspaper, the Barrier Truth, which said the “unfolding disaster” is “to the shame of authorities in government”.

“It is not, as rumours suggest, the fault of the Indigenous people of Wilcannia, who for 18 months have been pleading for protection from the pandemic we all knew was coming,” wrote local journalist Cherie von Hörchner in the op-ed, titled ‘Wilcannia abandoned’.

“What makes the situation even more bewildering is that a fool could have foreseen this disaster before the pandemic even began. Wilcannia has been a public health crisis for years, its claim to national fame being that it has the lowest life expectancy in Australia,” she wrote. 

‘Wilcannia abandoned’: the 25 August front page of the Barrier Truth. Photo: Rachel Evans/Facebook.

First Indigenous death

The dismay over the governmental failure to both prevent and appropriately react to the Western NSW Covid-19 crisis comes as Australia records its first Indigenous death from Covid-19: a man is his 50s who passed away in the Western NSW city of Dubbo.

The death of the man at Dubbo Base Hospital was announced by NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant at today’s daily Covid-19 media briefing. 

Dr Chant said the increasing cases among Indigenous communities in Western NSW were a cause for concern. 

“Any death is tragic and we are particularly concerned about the case numbers in … Western New South Wales because of the over-representation of Aboriginal people and the likelihood that Covid will be, and is, touching Aboriginal people disproportionately,” Dr Chant said.

To date, there have been 93 deaths linked to Covid-19 in NSW since the outbreak of the Delta variant began on 16 June, and 149 in total since the start of the pandemic.

New daily record

This morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a new daily case record for NSW – also a record for any Australian jurisdiction ­– of 1,290 new Covid-19 cases in the 24 hours to 8pm last night. 

Another four deaths were recorded in the reporting period: in addition to the death of the Indigenous man at Dubbo, a woman in her 60s died at Westmead Hospital, while two men in their 70s also died – one at Concord Hospital and another at Westmead Hospital.

There are currently 840 people admitted to NSW hospitals with Covid-19, including 137 in intensive care, 48 of whom require ventilation. 

The premier predicted worse was to come. 

“We anticipate that the worst month, the worst time for our intensive care unit will be in October,” Ms Berejiklian said.

Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel