The Australian government has drawn attention to a ‘disappointing’ vaccine rollout in remote indigenous communities in New South Wales (NSW) – despite being warned over a year ago of the need to ” urgent and drastic action ‘.
In March 2020, an indigenous health organization in the state wrote to Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt about his “Big fears” on the potential of a Covid-19 epidemic. Although the federal and state governments have been alerted, the health body said no “Tangible plan” has been set up.
With the spread of the Delta strain of the virus across the country, there has been an increase in cases in the western part of New South Wales. More than 70 cases have been detected in the small town of Wilcannia – where more than 10% of the population has been infected.
NSW Health reported the first indigenous death in the outbreak on Monday. The Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation, which alerted Wyatt last year, told Guardian Australia that Wilcannia faces challenges resulting from “Decades of failure, at all levels of government”.
“Covid-19 hits the hardest on communities where services and systems are poor. This exposes disadvantages and inequalities, and there are few more disadvantaged areas than the far west of New South Wales ”, Group CEO Bob Davis said.
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Davis wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday warning him of the “disaster.” The letter revealed that “Contrary to the claims of the government of New South Wales”, the situation in Wilcannia and the far west was “not under control”.
Noting that “Errors and problems accumulate”, Davis said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and State Health Minister Brad Hazzard had “Get the media and the public to believe” this “Everything that could be done was done to help the community. “
Following the “chaotic” situation, Davis warned that large Indigenous communities were “About to suffer the same fate as Wilcannia” and urged Morrison to take immediate action to combat the “Ongoing humanitarian crisis”.
Morrison responded to media reports of the letters noting that “Direct measurements” were taken in the indigenous communities of “A partnership with the government of New South Wales to remedy the situation”.
But Hazzard asserted that the federal government was responsible for the “obviously disappointing” roll-out of vaccination. His federal counterpart, Greg Hunt, said the government had “put in place specific protections” for Indigenous groups last year and touted the “much lower” death rate in these communities compared to the general population.
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Additionally, a spokesperson for Wyatt said the minister responded to Maari Ma’s letter and said a “Massive coordinated effort” was underway to increase the number of vaccinations. The spokesperson added that the country’s National Covid Vaccine Task Force has established an incident management team to help tackle the West New South Wales outbreak and response to indigenous communities.
It was not until Monday that the head of that task force reportedly met with Indigenous health groups to develop a national Indigenous immunization strategy. The NSW Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council said it was surprised that a strategy was not already in place.
The council, which represents all of the state’s indigenous health services, said federal and state government responses to the outbreak are “become a joke” and noted that the development of a strategy was now “too little, too late.”
“We had 18 months to prepare for this… there are now hundreds of cases in the west. It’s too late,” Dr Peter Malouf, the council’s epidemiologist, told the Guardian, adding that there was a “Lack of coordination and leadership” at the federal and state levels.
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