“This is a wake-up call”: The pandemic hits regional Australia
[Theme Music Starts]
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
One of the most concerning outbreaks of Covid-19 in the country right now is taking place in western New South Wales. Towns like Wilcannia and Walgett have high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations and some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
When the pandemic hit the region only eight percent of Indigenous people were fully vaccinated. Now, with the virus spreading fast, there are serious concerns for the community.
Today, research associate at ANU Bhiamie Williamson on the situation on the ground in western NSW.
It’s Wednesday, August 25.
[Theme Music Ends]
Bhiamie, can you tell me a bit about the town you live in and what it’s like there at the moment?
Yeah, sure, so I live in a little town called Goodooga. So we’re right up, sort of tucked underneath the armpit, of New South Wales and Queensland, because we're only about sort of 30ks from the Queensland border. And so, yeah, we are just kind of right in the north west of New South Wales. And it's just an awkward little spot of the country that not many people go through.
Like 99 out of 100 Australians wouldn't even know where Goodooga. And so we kind of thought with those odds that we're pretty safe from Covid, from the pandemic. But it has just slightly crept down from Sydney and crept out here. And as it's kind of crept closer and closer and closer, I mean, went from Sydney to Newcastle and jumped from Newcastle to Armidale to Tamworth to Dubbo to Walgett. And it's kind of just inched closer and closer and closer with each geographical area. I’d liken it to a dark cloud that's just hovering over the community at the moment. So everyone's pretty on edge, there’s certainly a feeling of being quite scared and fearful.
Mm. And right from the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of talk, a lot of emphasis on trying to make sure that areas like where you live, where there's a lot of Indigenous people living, that they were well protected from having outbreaks like this. Could you talk to me a little bit about that? Could you take me back and talk to me about the kind of the fear and the hope from the beginning of the pandemic about how things could be?
Yes. So I guess when the pandemic first hit. We all knew (and when I say we I mean, like all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) knew that this was a really risky time for Aboriginal and Islander people.
So I'm a Euahlayi man and this is our traditional country, traditional homeland, so this is my grandmother's home community. In our communities, I guess people still hold stories of diseases and mass killings from diseases for our people. People are very well aware and cognisant of the state of health, of a lot of a lot of our community members. And we also know that our elders are not many and not in good health generally.
And so the alarm bells were just not just ringing. They were like in full in full voice, really at the start of the pandemic. But we have really good support services in terms of medical support in our communities through our coordinated community controlled health services.
Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Indigenous Australians were one of our greatest concerns at the start of this pandemic. And so they always have been a very clearly defined, vulnerable community.”
And it seemed, at least in the first few months, to be matched by the both the state and federal governments kind of acknowledgement that Aboriginal communities are really vulnerable and need support and need protecting.
Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And our plans and policies have reflected that. So this is a key issue to be addressed in the strategy, in the rollout plans.”
And a lot of really good work was done in the first 12 months. And then obviously the vaccines were developed and that the federal government created a plan to immunise the population.
So that was the plan, as you say. But how did that actually bear out in reality? Were there many people able to get vaccinated? What was it like to try and go through that process?
Yeah so out here in Goodooga, we were waiting for our vaccination clinic like for six months or something. So we were first told in April, that the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service - so Walgetts 150 kilometres from Goodooga, but it services our little medical centre up here - Walgett Aboriginal medical services told us that they were kind of organising the vaccinations. And we're all really happy with that. And so they were just waiting for their supplies. And then we waited and we waited and we waited and waited.
And then it wasn't until sort of a month ago that we got word that the vaccination clinic, our one vaccination clinic was going to come up in the bus, inoculate everyone and then leave and it’d come out three weeks later and do it again. So it was scheduled for the 12th of August, a lot longer length of time than people would have liked, but we were happy to get it anyway. But then on the 11th August, the day before our vaccination clinic was when the positive case arose in Walgett. And so, bang, just like that our clinic was cancelled.
And so, you've got these really vulnerable communities who are who are not vaccinated at all, who have no protection against this virus. And I think that all of that came, you know, to a crashing kind of head When the virus hit out here and then started to spread.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Bhiamie, where did those first cases of Covid-19 in Western NSW come from? Can you tell me what we know about what happened exactly?
Yeah, sure. So there were two big instances of Covid arriving out here. The first one was a case in Dubbo.
Archival Tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:
“Two cases have been identified. And therefore, from 1:00 PM today, Dubbo will go into one week's lockdown…”
So Dubbo is like our regional centre and the regional service hub for basically most, if not all of north western New South Wales, talking about a place almost double the size of Tasmania all being serviced by Dubbo.
Archival Tape -- John Barilaro:
“My message for those all in Dubbo. We know how interconnected those regions and those communities are is to please follow the health orders, the stay home orders and try and minimise mobilisation…”
So Dubbo is the hub. Everyone goes to Dubbo, which means that got into Dubbo, everyone goes to Dubbo, and then it just, bam, just went right out into the communities.
Archival Tape -- Dugald Saunders:
“Twenty-three new cases in Dubbo. There's three new cases at Wellington, one new case at Narromine. Bathurst has four…”
Now, it's really important that to understand that those cases in Dubbo have been overwhelmingly Aboriginal people. So the first case was an Aboriginal person spread to an Aboriginal family and then it spread into Aboriginal kids in Dubbo.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“More than ninety cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in the region, home to some of the country's most vulnerable First Nations communities.”
So that was the first one. The second one was a young guy who was in Dubbo, but then got picked up by the police and he got taken to Bathurst Correctional Facility whilst he was awaiting his trial and he got tested for Covid going in, as is the policy for Corrections New South Wales. Now, he was in there for about three or four days. He had his bail hearing. He was released. He went to his home, went home to Walgett. The day after he got back to Walgett. He got the results back and he was positive.
So he got tested going in, didn't get his results back for more than four days. and that's how it got into Walgett. And then it's just kind of really spread significantly throughout all of north western New South Wales and particularly through the Aboriginal communities out here.
Has it reached the town where you live?
Yes, so here in Goodooga, so, you know, you've got just a bit over 200 people. It's really small places like five or six streets. And most of us are all family and related to one another.
So we've got, I think, sort of six positive cases in Goodooga at the moment. So six people out of 200. You're talking about sort of three percent of our population
So it's pretty you know, it's pretty freaky for really little small town to have to have people here infected because everyone knows everyone. We know the family. And it's heartbreaking for them, it's heartbreaking for everyone. And it's really scary for the whole community.
Hmm I can imagine it’s deeply concerning. So before this outbreak hit, you said vaccines weren’t that easy to access in your community. Is that changing now?
Yeah, so it seems that they finally have put a rush on the vaccines and getting them out here. So we see increasingly a lot of communities getting access to vaccinations
Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“It is concerning to us what's happening in western New South Wales. Of course it is. Of course it is. And that's why the additional resources and efforts and doses and masks and and hazmat teams and all of this are being provided to ensure that we can we can address that situation.”
Which is fantastic, but albeit should have been done months ago. But it seems that this government, these multiple governments seem to only want to respond when things go, when things go to shit rather than getting on the front foot and and planning ahead.
Archival Tape -- Prof. Paul Kelly:
“Rather than looking backward, Let's look forwards. Let's look at what's happened in the last few days, extraordinary efforts, literally thousands of vaccinations happening in places as far flung as Walgett and Bourke and Parana and many other places in western New South Wales…”
But overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, people are coming and people want to be vaccinated. People are desperate to be vaccinated. They just haven't had access to it. And so it's good that now when they're coming, we’re seeing whole of communities coming out to get vaccinated, which is just amazing. Where there have been cases, we see these pop up testing clinics carried out really, really rapidly, really quickly, really effectively, which is great. But yeah, I question why, why it took an outbreak for us to finally get what we would. I guess Aboriginal people were told that they would get right from the start.
What lessons do you think we should be taking from all of this? Because what's happening right now, where you are - it could happen anywhere - in South Australia, in the NT. And it’s already happening in parts of regional Victoria. So do you think that this should be seen as a wake up call?
Yes, I think that even in the Aboriginal community, we were lulled into a false sense of confidence after the first year or so of the pandemic, because we were doing really well. We were, no Aboriginal person that I'm aware of has passed away as a result of Covid-19. Communities did really well keeping their people safe. And I think that this is just a wake up call of this reality has not escaped us. We need to take swift and assertive and smart steps to continue to make safe our communities. And we really need the government to be listening and supporting our organisations who know what they're doing and are really good at what they do.
Mm hmm. Well, all the best over the coming days and the coming weeks. I hope that you and your friends and your family stay safe. What's your plan for the days ahead?
We're just waiting for our test results to come back from the clinic, actually. And then we're just going to go and try and do a bit of a bit of shop and then bunkered down for the week. And the rivers running next to town. So if we're lucky, we'll be able to go and sort of catch some fish or something. But yeah. So other than that, it's just we just bunkering down, just trying to wait for this storm to blow over.
Well, all the best and thank you for talking to me about it.
Also in the news today…
Victorians aged between 16 and 39 will now be able to access the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at state-run hubs, with over 800,000 first dose vaccine appointments opening up across the state today. The push to increase vaccination rates among young people ramped up after health authorities in Victoria recorded 50 new locally acquired cases of Covid-19 in the state.
In New South Wales, authorities recorded 753 new Covid-19 cases, and the ACT recorded a daily record of 30 new cases on Tuesday.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.
One of the most concerning outbreaks of Covid-19 in the country right now is taking place in western NSW.
Towns like Wilcannia and Walgett have high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations and some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
When the pandemic hit the region only eight percent of Indigenous people were fully vaccinated.
Now, with the virus spreading fast, there are serious concerns for the community.
Today, Bhiamie Williamson on the situation on the ground in western NSW.
Guest: ANU research associate and Euahlayi man, Bhiamie Williamson
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Michelle Macklem, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon and Anu Hasbold.
Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
More episodes from Bhiamie Williamson