Sydney (AP) – Several dozen mobile homes can be found in the village of Wilcannia in the middle of the outback, in the sparsely populated west of the state of New South Wales. They host contact persons for people infected with Covid-19.
The regional government provided them to bring the situation under control. “We have 650 residents and a total of 146 corona cases, of which 37 are currently infected,” said Jenny Thwaites, executive director of Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council, the German news agency. About 70 percent of the population is indigenous.
The situation is difficult: Wilcannia is isolated in the desert. It is nearly 200 kilometers from the next big city, Broken Hill, and almost 1,000 kilometers from Sydney. The place only has a small hospital. Covid patients with severe courses are flown to Broken Hill or the city of Adelaide in South Australia by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Crisis for infected natives
Monica Kerwin, an indigenous resident active in emergency management, posted a video on Facebook at the end of August in which she denounces the precarious situation of the infected natives in the village. She had already warned last year that there could be a crisis in remote areas of the hinterland like Wilcannia. “At that time, I felt like no one was listening and really interested in our opinion,” she told ABC.
Wilcannia is not an isolated case. In Enngonia, another hinterland community on the Queensland border, 30% of residents were infected within three weeks between August and September. The epidemics highlight a bigger structural problem that exists in many places in the hinterland: the housing shortage. The result is overcrowded housing. “Ten people live here in a house that is intended for four people,” says Jenny Thwaites. The virus can spread easily there.
The housing shortage is an old problem, but one that is reappearing in the wake of the pandemic. The infection rate is particularly high in overcrowded homes and it is difficult to isolate the sick. The 30 mobile homes made available by the State initially provide a remedy, but do not constitute a permanent solution. “We hope that the attention our place is receiving right now leads to more investment in housing construction,” Thwaites said.
Vulnerable population group
From a medical standpoint, too, the indigenous peoples of Australia are at greater risk than the non-indigenous population. A study conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra recently confirmed that aborigines should be given priority as a group in the vaccination program. “The risk of severe disease progression is higher in this population group,” explains Dr. Jason Agostino, general practitioner and epidemiologist at ANU.
“Indigenous Australians are more likely to suffer from diabetes and chronic heart or kidney disease. And we know that people with previous illnesses are particularly at risk for a corona infection. In addition, indigenous peoples developed the diseases an average of 20 years earlier than non-indigenous people.
As a medical adviser to the indigenous community health organization NACCHO, Agostino has followed Australia’s battle against the pandemic from the start. In his opinion, could Indigenous epidemics have been avoided? “At the start of the pandemic, entire areas of the outback were closed to protect the native population so that no one from the outside could enter,” he explains. It protected the natives for a long time. But in June, the situation changed because of the contagious variant of the Delta: the number of indigenous people infected with Covid Down Under quickly rose to 150, and there are now more than 2,500 cases.
The vaccination campaign is slow
In Wilcannia, as in other places, the focus has been on isolating those infected and preventing further infections in the community. But a long-term solution can only lead to a rapid and comprehensive vaccination campaign. Although Aborigines had access to vaccines as a priority group early on, research conducted by the Australian Guardian in early September showed that the vaccination rate for non-Indigenous Australians is up to 20 percentage points higher than that of the natives. Reason: misinformation and skepticism contributed to vaccination fatigue and especially in areas without Covid, the need for vaccination was not recognized for a long time. The government now wants to close the gap as soon as possible.
“We are determined and want immunization rates to meet or even exceed the national target,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote in a statement. Working with Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt, NACCHO and other Indigenous-run health services, the agency wants to massively promote vaccinations, even in the most remote parts of the outback. A campaign by Indigenous Media Services aims to broaden the discourse on the immunization program and convey a positive sentiment about the vaccine. In Wilcannia, too, vaccinations are already on the rise after the epidemic.
Health workers and police have been sent to the outback to provide support. Jenny Thwaites is grateful for the help: “For the first time in a long time, I have the feeling that we are not completely neglected.” However, the housing shortage will continue for the time being. Thwaites is hoping the pandemic will ultimately bring real change – and the attention the place is receiving right now will also lead to more investment in housing construction. “Covid has shed light on issues that have long been ignored or brushed under the rug,” she said.