The New South Wales town of Wilcannia in the state's north-west has sought to restrict access to outsiders in an effort to stop the spread of the potentially fatal coronavirus into the local area.
The Community Working Party (CWP), the peak group representing the local area’s Aboriginal voice, wrote to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council in late March to request the town be ‘locked-down’.
The CWP is the peak organisation at the local level under the governance structure of the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly (MPRA).
The Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council supported the CWP request, which reportedly follows several letters from local health workers and other community groups to the NSW Premier’s office also asking to close down the area to visitors.
Aboriginal people make up a high proportion of the the town's population of around 800, with many Elders identified as being particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus due to chronic diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and respiratory illness.
Last month, the Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland governments closed down regions inside their borders that contained remote Aboriginal communities considered most at risk to COVID-19 under Section 477 of the Commonwealth Biosecurity Act.
The NT government has shut down all non-essential travel to 76 remote communities. In Queensland, 19 remote communities have effectively been put into lockdown. While in WA, remote communities in the Kimberly, East Pilbara and Ngaanyatjarraku areas have been closed to outsiders.
Essential workers wishing to enter the designated biosecurity zones must quarantine for 14-days after first gaining permissions from the appropriate authorities.
However, regional Indigenous communities in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania do not fall under the Act.
Community members in the neighbouring western NSW towns of Menindee - 155 kilometres from Wilcannia - and Brewarrina – located around 100 kilometres north-east of Bourke – have also inquired into imposing bans on non-essential travel in the region.
Barkindji woman and the chairperson of Wilcannia CWP, Monica Whyman said she is frustrated that the NSW government has not implemented the closure of communities in western NSW.
“My cries for our vulnerable people out here have been falling on deaf ears. Somehow, we’ve gotten lost in the middle of all this shit and forgotten about,” she told NITV News in early April.
“Indigenous leaders and white leaders - they all want to make a decision on our community, but no one wants to listen to the grassroots inside the community.”
Situated on the Barrier Highway, the town is a regular fuel stop for travellers and with no official lockdown in place, Ms Whyman said those people passing through have not taken the recommended health measures seriously.
“We’re putting signs out to tell [travellers] the community is shut down but the highway is still open [and they] just drive straight on through … ignoring everything.”
Barkindji woman, Aunty Ann Currie said another concern in Wilcannia is the lack of available resources at the region’s small hospital.
“We haven’t got anywhere to put our people if anyone catches [COVID-19]. We’ve only got a little tiny hospital but it wouldn’t be enough if anything should happen. We’re not like the big cities,” she said.
“If the virus got here, I don’t know what would happen. We’re trying to do what we can as a community to stay safe, that’s why we would really like these tourists and travellers to go straight through our towns.
“We understand that people have got to go back to where they come from. All we’re asking is that they try to keep us safe by just going through and fuelling up at other places before they come this way. It’ll help us. It’ll help our community.”
Priority on lives
The shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney, said the New South Wales government should be doing more to protect vulnerable communities within its borders.
“Most of the communities that we’re talking about in NSW have a major highway going through them, be it Moree, Wilcannia, Dubbo for example and indeed Bourke up unto Queensland,” she said.
“There is a real issue in my view and an urgency from the NSW government to provide a lot more support than they are to communities like Wilcannia." she said.
In a statement given to NITV News last week, the Minister for Agriculture and Western NSW, Adam Marshall, said the state government is working with local communities and authorities in the to “deliver specific measures to meet the needs of those communities”.
Mr Marshall said the priority for government was to protect the lives and livelihoods of residents of the state, and the Government is taking tough steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.