Several dozen mobile homes are parked in the small town of Wilcannia in the middle of the outback, in the sparsely populated west of the state of New South Wales. They are housing contacts of those who have been infected with Covid-19. The regional government has provided them to help get the situation on the ground back under control. "We have 650 residents and a total of 146 Corona cases, 37 of which are currently infected," Jenny Thwaites, executive director of the Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. About 70 percent of the population is indigenous.
The situation is difficult: Wilcannia is cut off in the desert. It is almost 200 kilometers to the next largest town, Broken Hill, and almost 1000 kilometers to Sydney. The town has only one small hospital. Covid patients with severe cases are flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to Broken Hill or to the South Australian city of Adelaide.
"At the time, I felt like no one was listening or really interested in what we had to say"
Monica Kerwin, an indigenous resident active in emergency management, posted a video on Facebook in late August decrying the precarious situation for indigenous infected people in the village. She had warned last year that there could be a crisis in remote outback places like Wilcannia. "At the time, I felt that no one was listening and really interested in what we had to say," she told ABC radio.
Wilcannia is not an isolated case. In Enngonia, another outback community on the Queensland border, 30 percent of residents had become infected within three weeks between August and September. The outbreaks highlight a larger structural problem that exists in many outback localities: Housing shortages. The result is overcrowded housing. "People here are living ten to a house that's meant for four people," says Jenny Thwaites. That's where the virus can easily spread.
From a medical perspective, Australia's indigenous people are more at risk than the non-indigenous population
Housing shortages are an old problem, but the pandemic has made them new. Especially in overcrowded houses, the infection rate is high and isolation of the sick is hardly possible. The 30 mobile homes provided by the state provide some initial relief, but they are not a permanent solution. "We hope that the attention our place is getting right now will lead to more investment in building shelters," Thwaites says.
From a medical perspective, Australia's Aboriginal people are also more at risk than the non-Indigenous population. A study led by the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra recently confirmed that Aborigines need to be prioritized as a group in the vaccination program. "The risk of severe disease progression is higher in this population," explains Dr. Jason Agostino, a 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 pre-existing conditions are particularly at risk for Corona infection." In addition, he said, Indigenous people developed the diseases an average of 20 years earlier than non-Indigenous people.
As a medical advisor to the Aboriginal community-led health organization NACCHO, Agostino has followed Australia's fight against the pandemic from the beginning. In his opinion, could the Aboriginal outbreaks have been prevented? "At the beginning of the pandemic, whole places in the outback were closed to protect the indigenous population, so no one from the outside could get in," he explains. That protected the indigenous people for a long time, he says. But in June, the situation changed because of the contagious delta variant: the number of indigenous people infected with covid in Down Under quickly rose to 150, and there are now more than 2,500 cases.
Misinformation and skepticism contributed to vaccination fatigue
In Wilcannia, as in other places, the main concern since then has been to isolate those infected and prevent further infections within the community. But a long-term solution can only come from a rapid, widespread vaccination campaign. Although Aborigines have had access to vaccines as a prioritized group from the beginning, research by the Australian "Guardian" in early September showed that the vaccination rate among non-Indigenous Australians is up to 20 percentage points higher than among Indigenous people. The reason: misinformation and skepticism contributed to vaccination fatigue, and especially in Covid-free areas, the need for vaccination was not recognized for a long time. The government now wants to close the gap as quickly as possible.
"We are determined and want immunization rates to meet or exceed the national target," Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote in a news release. Together with the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, NACCHO and other Aboriginal-led health services, the agency plans to massively push vaccination in even the most remote outback locations. A campaign led by Indigenous media services aims to broaden the discourse about the vaccination program and instill a positive feeling about the vaccine. Wilcannia is also already seeing more vaccination following the outbreak.
Health workers and police officers have been dispatched to the Outback to assist. Jenny Thwaites is grateful for the help: "For the first time in a long time, I feel like we're not being completely neglected." For now, however, the housing shortage will continue. Thwaites hopes the pandemic will eventually bring real change - and that the attention the place is getting right now will also lead to more investment in shelter construction. "Covid has shined a light on problems that have long been ignored or swept under the rug," she says.