Wilcannia Covid crisis: governments sidestep responsibility as response to outbreak labelled ‘a joke’
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The New South Wales government has refused to take responsibility for what it admits is the “disappointing” vaccine rollout in Aboriginal communities in the state’s west, despite being warned last year of a potential catastrophe in the Covid-hit town of Wilcannia, as reported by Guardian Australia in an exclusive yesterday.© Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/EPA NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard says the vaccine rollout in Wilcannia and western NSW is a federal government responsibility.
NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, said the vaccination rollout to Aboriginal communities has been challenging, but that it was a federal government responsibility.
Hazzard was responding to claims made by the Maari Ma Aboriginal health service in the far west of NSW, revealed exclusively by Guardian Australia, that it warned both state and federal governments in March 2020 that they needed to urgently prepare for an outbreak.
As of Tuesday, Wilcannia had recorded 73 coronavirus cases in a population of 720, the highest transmission rate in NSW.
Maari Ma health service now says its warnings appear to have been ignored, with no “tangible plan” put in place.
“As a result, we’ve been playing catch up from day one,” Maari Ma said in a letter to prime minister Scott Morrison last Friday.
“Our systems and services are ill-prepared, actions are too slow to be implemented, our responses have been substandard, existing resources and expertise is not sufficient, new resources and expertise [for example the army and Ausmat] are not being used to their full potential.”
Hazzard did not comment on claims that the response to Wilcannia’s outbreak has been chaotic.
“The issue across all of the Aboriginal community is that the federal government had certain responsibilities at the outset, and they had responsibilities for aged care for people with disabilities and the staff that work in those facilities, and for Aboriginal people, and they were in their particular program, and the fact that that has not been achieved is obviously disappointing.
“But NSW Health … have stepped up to try and assist, and will continue to do that.
“At a personal level I have many friends who are Aboriginal in north-west and western NSW and I’m quite frustrated. As I said, I’ve talked to people up there quite regularly, and I’m frustrated about it … and I want to see that done as quickly as possible.”
The peak group representing all Aboriginal health services in NSW said both governments’ response to the Covid outbreak in the west of NSW “is becoming a joke”.
Aboriginal health groups met with the head of the federal government’s Covid vaccination program Lt Gen John Frewen on Monday afternoon to discuss a national Indigenous vaccine strategy, but the NSW Aboriginal health and medical research council was surprised there was not already a strategy in place.
Dr Peter Malouf, medical adviser with the council, says the strategy is “too little too late”.
“We’ve had 18 months to prepare for this,” Dr Malouf said. “We’ve had our first death in Dubbo, and there are hundreds of cases across the west now. It’s too late.
“There is a lack of coordination and leadership,” at the federal and state level, he said.
It was essential that governments worked more closely with Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, he said.
“Our sector successfully delivers seasonal vaccines like influenza and for other diseases, and has been doing that for more than 50 years. We have the capability, experience and expertise to work with our communities. Why is Covid any different?”
On Monday Guardian Australia revealed the NSW and federal governments were warned 18 months ago of the urgent need to protect the Covid-hit town of Wilcannia.
Leaked correspondence showed the Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation wrote to the Indigenous Australians minister, Ken Wyatt, in March 2020, outlining “grave fears” for the far western NSW town if Covid were to spread to the vulnerable population there. The health corporation also wrote to the NSW premier last year.
“Disappointingly, no tangible plan was in place prior to this outbreak that could have been easily implemented.
“For your information, positive Covid-19 patients are still being … forced into overcrowded accommodation with people who have yet to contract the disease. This would only – and has only – occurred in Aboriginal communities.”
The letter concluded: “Our staff are increasingly being exposed to the virus, and our services are becoming more vulnerable to collapse by the day.”
In a statement to Guardian Australia, after the release of the letters, Maari Ma CEO Bob Davis said:
“The challenges faced by the community of Wilcannia today are the result of decades of failure, at all levels of government. This has never been just a commonwealth problem or a state problem, and it’s not a party problem either. It’s always been a political problem, and it exists because of the ongoing failure of the political process. We’re seeing the consequences of those failures play out in Wilcannia today.
“Covid-19 hits hardest in communities where there are poor services and systems. It exposes disadvantage and inequality, and there are few more disadvantaged regions than the far west of NSW.”
A spokesperson for Indigenous Australians minister, Ken Wyatt, said the minister had received and responded to the 23 March 2020 correspondence from the Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation.
Hazzard said he was in discussions to secure safe accommodation for people who needed to isolate away from overcrowded family homes to prevent the spread of the virus.
“As late as yesterday, I was communicating with the planning minister to try and get approvals to have additional accommodation available on a portable basis up in Wilcannia to allow separation of people who are positive,” he said.
“It’s very challenging and it certainly would have been preferable if the Indigenous community, the Aboriginal people across New South Wales had been vaccinated earlier, no question.”
The prime minister responded to a questions about the letters by saying “there are direct measures being undertaken in those communities in partnership with NSW government to address the situation.”
The federal health minister Greg Hunt said the death rate in Aboriginal communities is “vastly lower” than the mainstream population.
“Specifically in relation to Wilcannia, the vaccines have been available there since 22 March.
“We have recently upped the number of vaccines available. We also have AUSMAT which has been in place and RFDS which has been in place. What we are seeing in the Wilcannia region is a 58% vaccination rate,” Hunt said.