The Government Ignored Wilcannia’s Plea For Help Months Before COVID Hit The Town
Wilcannia residents repeatedly asked both the NSW and federal government for assistance before the COVID outbreak.
Despite having a population of just 745 people, the rural New South Wales town of Wilcannia has graced the front page of the Washington Post last week.
Why? Well, as the Washington Post put it, “the remote community’s crisis reflects not only the recent collapse of “COVID zero” in Australia but also the country’s historical failings.”
Throughout the current outbreak, Wilcannia — where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 61.2 percent of the population — has recorded a staggering 152 cases. This means that one in five Wilcannia residents has tested positive to COVID-19 during this outbreak alone.
But this isn’t just a case of bad luck, this is a crisis that could have been prevented. A problem that the Federal Government was aware of but simply chose to ignore. If you look at the fact that the life expectancy for Wilcannia residents is just 37 for Indigenous men and 42 for Indigenous women, compared to 82 for all Australians, it becomes clear that this tiny rural town has long been an afterthought for the government when it comes to healthcare spending.
With only one ventilator in town and the nearest intensive care unit some 200km away in Broken Hill, Wilcannia was always a sitting duck when it came to the pandemic.
Warnings Fell On Deaf Ears
Back on March 23, 2020, the Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Corporation wrote to Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt to express “grave fears” of what would happen if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred in the state’s far west.
“Warnings from around the world are clear: the earlier we prepare and act, the better the outcomes will be. We cannot wait until the first case turns up in the community, or worse, the first hospital case presents,” the letter stated, as reported by The Guardian. “Basic mathematics says that by the time our first hospital patient presents, around 100 cases will already exist in the community, and this is based on best case modelling.”
In addition to expressing concerns, the letter explicitly asked for “urgent and drastic” help, a plea that ultimately fell on deaf ears.
“Urgent and drastic action is needed now, especially in setting up fully functioning isolation/quarantine facilities and organising services to enable people to properly isolate at home,” Maari Ma said. “The poverty and extreme vulnerability of Aboriginal people and communities in the Murdi Paaki region is a direct result of decades of failed government policies. I’m sure you can understand our anxiety that these failures not continue, or worsen, throughout the COVID19 crisis.”
Maari Ma also contacted Prime Minister Scott Morrison directly, calling on him to do something about the “unfolding humanitarian crisis” in Wilcannia. This letter was also sent to several other state and federal politicians.
“Our staff are increasingly being exposed to the virus, and our services are becoming more vulnerable to collapse by the day,” the letter concluded.
But the government didn’t just ignore the desperate calls for help from Wilcannia, it actually dismissed the community’s suggestions of solutions to the unfolding crisis on multiple occasions.
According to The New Matilda, leaked meeting minutes from Local Emergency Management Committee (LEMC) meetings dated between March and June 2020 detail how the NSW Government refused to implement protective measures for Wilcannia.
The issue of overcrowding and the vulnerability of Wilcannia amid the COVID-19 pandemic was first noted in meeting minutes on March 30, 2020 — more than 12 months before the local outbreak started. “Denise McCallum reported that seven rooms available for self-isolation at the Wilcannia hospital (LOW RISK) Transfer to Broken Hill for Moderate/Severe Risk 10 Bed ward ready. Self-isolation still an issue, available accommodation in regions being investigated e.g. motels, hotels, teacher housing, police barracks,” meeting minutes read.
Two weeks later — on April 14 — a request asking “if those that are highly vulnerable could be placed in accommodate (sic) for isolation,” was declined by Brendan Hedger — who is in charge of disaster planning and relief in the Far West region.
“No! where would you stop please note this decision is not dollar-driven but resources driven,” replied Brendan Hedger, according to the meeting minutes from April 14.
Two weeks later, on April 27, the issue of it being near-impossible to safely isolate in Wilcannia — which has only 220 homes — was again raised. Residents urged the LEMC to provide tents to assist with overcrowding, however, this request was dismissed by NSW Department of Family and Community Services Lyndon Gray.
“NO! We have finite resources and they are to be used for isolation cases only 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,” said Gray, according to meeting minutes.
The overarching vibe of the meetings can be summed up in a quote from Gray, who asserted that solving the overcrowding issue would just create further problems: “Overcrowding is an issue that was here before the COVID-19 outbreak and will be here well after, solving one problem will create five more.”
So make no mistake, the government — at both a state and federal government — knew Wilcannia was a sitting duck in the COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of trying to fix the issue, the government repeatedly ignored and dismissed the problem.