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Australia 'Deaf ears': Wilcannia's pleas for pandemic preparation were dismissed

21:27  27 october  2021
21:27  27 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The race is on to protect First Nations Australians from COVID-19, with the gulf widening on infection and vaccination rates as the nation starts reopening after months of lockdowns.

Leaked documents reveal a litany of failures in the system to protect Aboriginal communities, which left the remote town of Wilcannia exposed despite high-level warnings stretching back up to 18 months.

Marjorie Whyman was out of options when COVID-19 arrived in her New South Wales outback town.

She escaped with her family to this run-down property when the virus was detected in Wilcannia in August, two months after the highly infectious Delta strain started spreading from Sydney's wealthy eastern suburbs.

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Coughs had started echoing through the house the Whymans shared with three other families in the town in the state's far west, 200 kilometres from Broken Hill.

Marjorie was terrified the virus could kill her in the public housing home, where 20 people crammed into just four bedrooms.

"I've got diabetes so I was thinking the worst for myself," she said.

All 20 who lived in the house would eventually catch COVID.

When Marjorie's daughter Shayna, 11, and partner Peter Murphy became the first in their family to test positive, she called NSW authorities to plead for help to isolate them.

She even tried a women's shelter.

"I rang services to try to get accommodation for them but we couldn't get anywhere," she said.

Marjorie discovered the state had no emergency isolation accommodation for this town of 745, after 18 months of emergency planning and decades of warnings about chronic overcrowding and dismal public housing.

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The family of five had no choice but to isolate for 10 days in this tiny granny flat.

Marjorie shared one mattress on the floor with her daughters Shayna and Patricia, 10, and her partner Peter.

Peter lay vomiting day and night, barely able to move as temperatures dropped near freezing.

They had no fridge.

No functioning toilet.

No hot water to wash.

The ceiling was falling in and there were fears of asbestos.

Peter did not wash for a week, until the local school lent the family a kitchen urn. The family relied on scorching drips of water to bathe.

They all caught COVID-19 as the virus tore through overcrowded houses in Wilcannia, mostly public housing.

At the time, the vaccination rate was only 17 per cent because of delays to the federal government's vaccine program and hesitancy fuelled by its changing AstraZeneca vaccine advice.

COVID-19 was detected in at least 152 people in Wilcannia, one-third of the town's Indigenous population and Australia's highest rate of the disease per capita.

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Some who tested positive said they never received a call from NSW Health.

Others recounted conversations with contact tracers who had little understanding of the realities of life in an Aboriginal community. They advised locals in the one-shop town to order food via delivery service UberEats, according to Wilcannia elder Aunty Monica Kerwin.

"I heard men cry because they felt helpless as to how they're going to protect their family," Ms Kerwin said.

"The only information that was given to those who had the virus was isolate, but if you've got a mattress in the lounge, where do you isolate?"

Some residents resorted to isolating in tents in their yards.

One pregnant woman with COVID-19 was made to wait several hours outside the local hospital in the ambulance bay in the winter cold to separate her from other patients. NSW Health has apologised for the incident and updated its admission protocols.

A week into the outbreak, NSW Health moved about a dozen positive cases and close contacts to a campground outside town.

Several people who arrived negative were surrounded by infected people at the campground, and soon tested positive themselves.

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Three weeks into the outbreak, NSW Health finally offered isolation accommodation to COVID patients in 30 campervans it hired for the town.

NSW Health and other agencies ran a "totally inadequate" response in the first weeks, said local Shooters, Fishers and Farmers state MP Roy Butler.

"There were significant problems in the first few weeks with both the coordination of resources on the ground, and the communications were a huge issue in terms of telling people what was going on," Mr Butler said.

"They didn't get people come into the home to check on them to make sure they're OK in that first two to three weeks."

Last year, as Wilcannia community leaders planned for an outbreak and pleaded for solutions to help them isolate, a senior NSW Health official dismissed the community's housing crisis, telling an emergency management meeting that "COVID-19 is the issue here, not overcrowding".

But when the first NSW Health 'hospital in the home' team finally visited the Whymans, they ordered urgent repairs to their house and dozens of others in similar states of decay.

Public housing residents had been unable to secure basic repairs to blocked toilets and hand basins for weeks, and reports to the state and federal governments on Wilcannia's housing crisis dated back decades.

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Earlier this month, with Wilcannia finally COVID-free and the community's first-dose vaccination rate above 74 per cent, federal health secretary Brendan Murphy hailed the response to the outbreak a "success".

Dr Murphy described the management of the outbreak as an "extraordinary story" of door-to-door vaccinations and cooperation between the Commonwealth, state, Aboriginal health organisations and Wilcannia community leaders.

However, documents seen by the ABC reveal a systemic breakdown in the response to the pandemic, which left families like the Whymans fending for themselves in the first chaotic weeks, as the Aboriginal community of Wilcannia endured the country's worst Delta outbreak.

Sorry business

As families scrambled to protect themselves in the early weeks of the outbreak, the NSW government was quick to blame the Wilcannia community.

The state government said the virus arrived in the town on August 13 with a large funeral and wake, known as sorry business, for a young local man whose death drew mourners from afar.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard described the mourners as "selfish" and wrongly accused them of breaking the law, even though a lockdown was not in place until a day after the funeral.

Retiring Nationals MP John Barilaro, who was then Deputy Premier, said the mourners were "no different" to a group of "dickheads" who held an illegal party in the Sydney suburb of Maroubra.

"Whatever resources you could have prepared for, I don't think you could have ever prepared for such an outcome," Mr Barilaro said, 11 days into the chaotic response.

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His claims that the outbreak caught authorities off-guard infuriated Wilcannia elders, who had started begging the government 17 months earlier to protect the community.

Wilcannia community leaders pleaded with senior officials to stop visitors and limit funeral numbers, and warned that chronic overcrowding would cause disaster.

But leaked documents reveal senior bureaucrats dismissed solutions put forward by elders with at-times hostile and confounding responses, and refused requests to lock the town down before the virus arrived.

"They did not listen to the community and for that, they were responsible for the outbreak in the end in my view," said Wilcannia community leader Brendon Adams.

'Hard and heartbreaking'

With one of the highest rates of preventable death and suicide in the state, the Wilcannia community was all too aware of the risks posed by sorry business.

From the start of the pandemic in 2020, elders like Ms Kerwin took on the heavy task of meeting with grieving families and police to ask them to limit funeral numbers.

"We said to the police, 'This is where you need to enforce the law because if family are going to travel home — and a lot of them will — we don't want them here,' only because we don't want the virus to get in here," Ms Kerwin said.

"That was so hard and heartbreaking that we had to tell family, to tell the mob, not to come home, when that's not cultural for us."

From March 2020, Ms Kerwin was recruited as a community representative on the town's Local Emergency Management Committee (LEMC), a body set up by the state government to protect Aboriginal communities from COVID-19.

NSW Police ran the LEMC and were required to report crucial information to the government and its State Emergency Operations Centre.

Leaked minutes of the meetings from March to June 2020 show senior officials on the LEMC, including from NSW Health, were repeatedly warned funerals could bring COVID-19 into Wilcannia.

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ABC Investigations understands that as recently as two weeks before the Wilcannia outbreak in August 2021, when COVID-19 started spreading in the western NSW town of Dubbo, the committee discussed that a funeral could become a super spreader event.

Many in the community dispute that the funeral started the outbreak but that debate is a distraction, says Ms Kerwin.

"At the end of the day, it got into this community and somebody needs to be held accountable for it," said Ms Kerwin, who chairs the Wilcannia Working Party, an elected body that represents the community.

"Nobody was prepared for it. We were trying to warn them of it and it spread like that because of the amount of people that we're close to [due to overcrowding]."

The harsh words of the health minister and deputy premier were all the more galling to elders because their government had rejected a plea to enact special powers to protect Aboriginal communities at the start of the pandemic.

In March 2020, Wilcannia elders joined several NSW Aboriginal communities and organisations to ask for a public health order to prevent travel and restrict access to their towns.

Elders feared infection from the many truckies or travellers who regularly stopped in Wilcannia, on a remote stretch of the Barrier Highway between Sydney and Adelaide.

They wanted police stationed at roadblocks to prevent through-traffic from stopping — similar to measures enforced by police and the army around remote communities across northern Australia at the time.

The federal government locked down communities in the Top End, Central Australia, Cape York and the Kimberley last year deeming them critically vulnerable, but NSW did not fall under the commonwealth biosecurity legislation.

In April 2020, senior police delivered the message to the LEMC that a "lockout" of through-traffic was "not on".

The April 14, 2020, LEMC meeting was told "each community must be aware of what they can do as opposed to what they want to do".

The state government rejected the request because of advice from NSW Health, NSW Police and the Aboriginal Affairs Department about "economic and social impacts", according to a statement from NSW Health.

"This included potential impacts on the provision of essential goods and services, the impact of restricting movement to and from specific communities, particularly in relation to cultural activities and the potential impacts of enforcement and penalties," a NSW Health spokesperson said.

At the LEMC, police then proposed signage to warn drivers not to stop in Wilcannia, but the minutes show state officials refused to cover the $15,000-a-month cost of electronic roadside signs.

The Aboriginal Affairs Department advised it could not cover the cost because of "other immediate needs that requires (sic) attention."

Frustrated by a lack of support, Wilcannia's residents took matters into their own hands, resorting to asking local children to make their own signs, but drivers continued to stop in the town throughout 2020 and into the Delta outbreak this year.

'We have finite resources'

In desperation last year, the community approached the Central Darling Shire Council requesting $10,000 in emergency funding for tents and sleeping bags so they could isolate in their yards if the virus arrived.

The request met a hostile reception at the LEMC, with one senior NSW Health official responding confoundingly, "COVID-19 is the issue here, not overcrowding".

The minutes also note, "Overcrowding is an issue that was here before the COVID-19 outbreak and will be here well after, solving 1 problem will create 5 more."

"We have finite resources and they are to be used for isolation cases only," an official from the NSW Department of Family and Community Services was recorded as saying.

"Tents would not address the contact issues, its (sic) too cold this time of year, and they would still need to go back into the house to shower, wash, cook."

Officials on the LEMC also shut down a request by the council for accommodation to isolate the community's most at-risk members.

The minutes record repeated warnings about overcrowding housing, as well as attempts to secure accommodation for isolation from the start of the pandemic.

Wilcannia's community leaders left the LEMC because they said their voices were not heard.

"Every day we phoned in, we raised the overcrowding issue," said Ms Kerwin.

"These people at the LEMC guaranteed us there was sufficient accommodation for these families.

"At least a tent would have separated them from everyone else.

"Our opinion was never considered at that table as a valued opinion."

The community ultimately relied on tents it received from the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, the peak Indigenous political body for the region, although there were not enough to go around.

The council's general manager, Greg Hill, declined to talk about the committee meetings but told the ABC warnings about overcrowding "fell on deaf ears at the state level".

"There was a lack of strategic planning, especially around Indigenous communities and especially with the overcrowding and the condition of housing," he said.

"Stay-at-home orders should have been put on the far west a lot sooner.

"Yes, we got extra police, we had the ADF come in, we had the campervans, we had the RFS basecamp all after two to three weeks' time, but some of those things were raised earlier, and I thought they could have been implemented sooner."

The community comes together

In the first days of the outbreak, community leader Brendon Adams and local deputy principal Sarah Donnelly, from Sydney, were recruited onto the LEMC to secure food for the community.

Mr Adams said the committee had no plan, even though it was warned in 2020 about food security in the town, which had just one grocery store, one takeaway shop and one petrol station.

"It was chaotic because it all just came in in a rush and we had to improvise," he said.

Within days, the pair converted a council shed into a food bank. They received so many donations from around Australia, the shed was stacked to the ceiling with boxes of food, toilet paper, sanitiser and masks within a week.

Nine days into the outbreak, the Australian Defence Force was deployed to Wilcannia to help pack food parcels for local residents, support a door-to-door vaccination campaign and enforce COVID-19 compliance.

NSW Health eventually conducted daily checks on positive cases in Wilcannia who were in home isolation and set up vaccination clinics and testing sites, with the local Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation.

Back in March 2020, Maari Ma had written to NSW Health and the federal and state governments, pleading for "urgent and drastic action" to protect Wilcannia.

A reply from NSW Health, dated April 1, 2020, and seen by the ABC, acknowledged "the limit on our resources" but assured, "the relative isolation of the far west has given us sufficient time to implement our preparations".

'Local challenges'

NSW Health declined an interview with the ABC and refused to respond to questions about the LEMC meetings and claims of delays in responding to COVID cases.

However, in a lengthy statement, NSW Health's Far West Local Health District said it had helped lift first-dose vaccination rates from 17 per cent at the start of the outbreak to 74.6 per cent by mid-October.

"The commonwealth government has primary responsibility for the vaccination rollout to First Nations communities across Australia," the statement said.

"NSW Health and the Far West Local Health District (FWLHD) have partnered to address local challenges."

The FWLHD also said it had "initially secured accommodation both within and outside of Wilcannia to off-set the limited options available in the township".

It said it eventually provided motorhomes for isolation "in response to the community's wishes to remain on country".

NSW Police also defended its emergency management arrangements in a statement to the ABC.

A spokesperson said the LEMCs had developed COVID response plans that "balanced protecting the health of communities with their own needs and access".

"The plans … achieved local confidence and consultation of supporting agencies with the communities," the statement said.

"Local, regional and state emergency management committees have been and continue to operate in support of NSW Health and Aboriginal communities."

Indigenous infection rates rising

With case numbers expected to surge as Australia reopens after months of lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, health officials fear First Nations people remain critically exposed to COVID.

So far, 12 Aboriginal people have died in NSW's Delta outbreak, including a man from Broken Hill who travelled to Wilcannia for the August 13 funeral.

Across Australia, infection rates in Indigenous communities are more than double the national average, according to a confidential briefing paper provided to the federal government this month.

Vaccination rates remain dismal.

As of October 25, only 46.8 per cent of First Nations people were fully vaccinated, compared to 74 per cent of all Australians aged 16 and older.

The figure was as low as 25 per cent in Western Australia and 36 per cent in Queensland and South Australia.

Indigenous leaders across Australia are still pleading with authorities to impose travel restrictions to prevent people from bringing the virus into communities, which have similar substandard housing and medical services as Wilcannia.

Earlier this month, police and the local council asked the NSW government to lock down the town of Walgett, more than 600 kilometres north-east of Wilcannia, after 24 COVID cases were detected in the week leading up to Sydney's October 11 'freedom day'.

Local MP Roy Butler supported the proposed lockdown to protect Walgett's large Aboriginal community, but said the government rejected it on the basis of advice from NSW Health.

Mr Butler, who also supported the push for a travel ban for Wilcannia in 2020, is calling for an inquiry into the spread of COVID from Sydney into some of the state's poorest towns.

"There needs to be a very thorough look at what actions were taken and the warnings that were given by health groups, local government, me and local Aboriginal groups to government about the risk of this virus coming out to Aboriginal communities — why they weren't taken seriously and why they weren't acted on," he said.

"It's the job of governments to listen to them, not to ignore."

The state government is also under renewed pressure to address Wilcannia's housing crisis.

It has promised to build five one bedroom units for elderly Aboriginal tenants by this December, with further plans for housing in coming years.

The government also plans to fund $1 million in upgrades on Wilcannia's public housing, on top of $1.8 million in maintenance over the past five years.

But Mr Butler and the local council say the commitment is a small fraction of what is needed.

For elders like Ms Kerwin, Australia's leaders must urgently learn the lessons of the Wilcannia outbreak and work with First Nations communities to protect them.

"They need to listen more to the grassroots people who they're dictating to," she said.

"Start listening to the people on the ground because if you're here, I want to be a part of a plan that's going to protect me, I want to be part of the solution.

"We just want to survive."

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Photography and videography: Dave Maguire

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