Wilcannia locals are celebrating the news there have been no new Covid cases for two weeks, but say they are now on the long path to recovery after the virus hit “like a cyclone” in August.
Wednesday was the 15th consecutive day of no new cases, an “incredible” outcome according to Brendon Adams, who runs Wilcannia River radio and who worked on the frontline during the crisis.
“It was like a cyclone, we were just overwhelmed by the impact,” Adams said. “There was a lot of depression, there was isolation but our community came together, and to see an outcome such as this is unbelievable.”
As NSW lifts restrictions, one Aboriginal health expert warned that “we are still in the thick of it”, with new cases appearing in other Aboriginal communities every day.
Over the past two weeks, Covid cases in Aboriginal people have increased by more than 400% in the Hunter-New England region. Worimi surgeon and University of Newcastle professor, Dr Kelvin Kong, told the ABC the surge was “absolutely horrifying.”
Three schools in Tamworth were forced to close last week after community members tested positive to the virus, and the town had 10 new cases on Monday alone. But reintroducing lockdowns is unlikely, according to Tamworth mayor Colin Murray, who said it was an “unreasonable expectation that we can go on the way we have for the last year and a half, locking down. Our economy can’t manage it.”
“I believe it’s time we start to accept our personal responsibility,” Murray said, including getting vaccinated, but added it was important for people to “be cautious”.
With so many new Aboriginal confirmed cases each day, epidemiologist Dr Peter Malouf said his concern is about “what is to come”.
“Given that we’re only four days out of lockdown, we might see an increase in Covid cases over the next couple of weeks,” Malouf, adjunct professor at the University of Sydney and Wakka Wakka–Wulli Wulli man, said.
“I’ve been vocal about the fact that we need to get to a 90% vaccination rate, particularly in Aboriginal communities, before we can open up.”
Malouf said ongoing Covid clusters in Aboriginal communities across NSW are at odds with the political rhetoric about “freedom”.
“We’ve got [NSW Premier] Dominic Perrottet talking about the roadmap. There’s a lot of things that need to be thought through before you introduce a roadmap giving people hope. You should have actually done some planning and resource distribution about how to deal with a cluster or outbreak in the community. ” he said.
He said Aboriginal community-controlled health workers are “stretched thin” by managing outbreaks and the vaccination rollout on top of their regular caseload.
“We know that for Aboriginal community health staff, this is their lived experience 24/7, and their job doesn’t stop at five o’clock. They are constantly working in the community and exposed to vicarious trauma through family members and close friends that have contracted the disease.”
“The level of resilience and persistence is just incredible. But at some point, workers are going to need time out. Where does the service draw on for that surge workforce capacity?”
In Wilcannia, thanks to the community’s own strong calls for help – which some say came far too late – the small town on the Baarka (Darling River) in far west NSW has gone from 153 cases to zero in 57 days.
Adams said governments are now “fully aware of what Covid can do to communities that have overcrowding”.
“For us, it is about where do we go from here? Now we need to work together, both local people and government, to start providing immediate solutions to our housing crisis. And they have a responsibility to act on them, because there could always be a second wave,” he said.
“Our people have gone through a lot of trauma. People have lost jobs, people have lost confidence, it’s the financial strain that happened to community with the lockdown, the isolation, all of this has really done damage. We actually need support to help our people to recover, lift our sense that we’ve overcome this thing.”
Wilcannia, with a population of about 720, recorded its first case on 18 August, when less than 20% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population over the age of 16 had received their first dose of a vaccine, and only 8% had been fully vaccinated, despite being identified as a priority group since the early days of the pandemic.
By 26 August, it had a higher Covid transmission rate than the worst hotspots in Sydney, sparking demands for a coordinated state and federal response.
By early September, a tent city of health workers including AUSMAT and the Royal Flying Doctor Service was pitched at the Wilcannia showground. There was intensive testing and vaccination. The state government delivered 30 motorhomes – weeks after the first case was detected – to help people isolate.
Now that cases are at zero, 10 of those motorhomes have been transported to nearby Wentworth to help people self-isolate.
The far west local health district said it is “very impressed by the Wilcannia community, who overwhelmingly followed the health advice”.
“With regional travel reopening, we ask the Wilcannia community to please not get complacent and continue the great work they have been doing.” an LHD spokesperson said.
A Covid community response team will remain in town for the foreseeable future, while local mental health teams are in the process of resuming their pre-Covid services, the spokesperson said.
Brendon Adams said he is proud of Wilcannia’s resilience, but recovery will take a long time.
“We have a lot of strong leaders in this town, we’ve got a lot of strong young people, but they have been affected.”
Adams wants other Aboriginal communities to learn from Wilcannia’s experience, get tested and get vaccinated.
“Covid’s gonna be here for quite a long time. We do not know how long it will be, so we actually have to be smart. We, as people, are the cure,” he said.
“What I mean by that is, we have to make the decision. I have personally witnessed the difference of seeing someone who was Covid positive who wasn’t vaccinated, and I really, truly believe that vaccination does help.
“So I would really encourage people to do the right thing, because it’s up to us to make that decision.”