As international jetsetters complain about the self-isolation conditions in 5-star hotels, residents in remote communities are pleading for the most basic quarantine and hospitalisation facilities: tents. Nina Funnell and Chris Graham report.
In the town of Wilcannia in the Far West of NSW, locals have become so frustrated with the Government’s failure to provide even basic preparation essentials, including tents for self-isolation and a portable dialysis machine, that residents have now taken the radical step of instituting their own community-wide lockdown to help inncoulate against the introduction of coronavirus.
The town of 745 (around two-thirds of whom are Aboriginal) is situated on the Barrier Highway, the main artery between Sydney and Adelaide, and Adelaide and Brisbane.
Already, ‘Grey Nomads’ and other travellers have put a strain on the community’s dwindling food supply, and photos captured last week show a convoy of caravans depleting the town’s local stores.
But it’s not what tourists take, so much as what they might introduce, which has instilled fear in Wilcannia residents.
“If this virus hits our town, we haven’t got anywhere to put our sick elders or kids,” said Ann Currie, an elder who works at the Wings Drop In Centre in Wilcannia.
“Maybe in the city they’ve got places where they put people when they catch this virus, but out here we haven’t. We haven’t even got a tent to put up,” she said.
This week, Wilcannia children started painting and erecting signs on the outskirts of town, asking travellers not to stop unless they were on essential business.
The community has also been calling for the NSW government to supply emergency tents which could be used to both isolate and hospitalise individuals who become sick.*
Monica Whyman, chairperson of the Wilcannia Community Working Party says the basic isolation equipment is essential.
“We need tents. We need help around catering for our chronic disease. We need to get a portable dialysis machine out here. They can’t seem to find any funding to get that put in, but (elsewhere) they are putting the rich up in 5-star hotels,” she said.
“The Government needs to treat us all the same, we’re all human beings,” said Ms Whyman, adding that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race.
On the contrary, during Sunday’s National Press Conference, Scott Morrison seemingly acknowledged that Aboriginal people may in fact be more at risk, advising all non-Indigenous people over 70 to stay at home, but lowering that age to 50 for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many of whom suffer higher rates of diabetes, asthma, and other underlying health problems which increase chances of death in coronavirus cases.
Yet despite the fact that the threat facing Indigenous communities is both real and known to government departments, practical support is still missing.
Ms Whyman says the lack of action has left the community with no other option than to implement their own community-wide lockdown to stop outsiders infecting locals.
“People need to understand that when we’re talking about a lockdown of our community, it’s for our own safety. Aboriginal people are vulnerable,” she said.
As in many remote Indigenous communities, if COVID-19 were to be introduced in Wilcannia, it would be almost impossible to contain, due to overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of resources needed by individuals to self-isolate for prolonged periods of time.
According to the Murdi Paaki 2017 Household and Mobility survey, more than half the residences in Wilcannia were considered “often or always crowded”, with more than 10 adults routinely living in a single dwelling.
The same survey also found that 54 per cent of residences had no secure entry door, and populations were mobile, with one third of homes accommodating at least one extra person who would otherwise be without housing.
Many of the essentials required to self-isolate in cities — including cars to transport groceries, electricity to refrigerate goods, and running water to wash hands — are also compromised in Wilcannia.
One in three homes in the town have major plumbing problems, at least a quarter of dwellings (26.2 per cent) have no car, and a third of homes have major electrical problems.
These factors, combined with lower than average household incomes, higher than average costs for food, poorly stocked shelves and large households makes self-isolation almost impossible.
While others around the country complain about slow internet speeds when working from home, in Wilcannia, less than half of dwellings (48.6 per cent) have internet.
To complicate matters further, more than a quarter (27.3 per cent) of residents in Wilcannia are over the age of 50.
“If the disease gets into our community it will be devastating,” says Ms Whyman. “Our community is already vulnerable. We already have very sick people.”
Of course these risk factors are not unique to Wilcannia.
According to the Australian Institute of Health of Welfare, Indigenous Australians are four times as likely to have type-2 diabetes compared to non-Indigenous Australians.
Deaths from asthma are approximately three times higher for Aboriginal people, and Aboriginal people are also 70 per cent more likely to die from circulatory diseases, compared to the rest of the population.
Ms Whyman says that in Wilcannia, the locals have been left with no option than to take matters into their own hands to protect the community. They are urging others to stay away and encouraging locals to use Facetime to connect with friends and family. They are also educating the local community on how to stay safe.
“Cultures throughout the world are being affected by this. Cultural things that they’ve done, things that are cultural to them, they can no longer practice those things at the moment. This is not by choice, we have no choice.”
“We can’t have a big funeral. We have to stop a lot of cultural get-togethers.
“We’re trying to educate the mob, we’re trying to get that out there.”
* UPDATE: May 10, 2020: Ultimately, the Government refused repeated requests for tents to be used as emergency accommodation. They were eventually supplied by the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, after a donation from a community donor.
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