Nearly 60% of people who have died during the New South Wales Delta wave lived in the south-western or western Sydney local health districts, according to data that further underlines a deadly divide in Australia’s experience of the pandemic.
As Melbourne’s case numbers hit record numbers, one of its most disadvantaged local government areas has also had nearly a third of Victoria’s fatalities during Delta, data compiled by Guardian Australia shows.
At the key stages of both outbreaks, many of these areas also had vaccination rates lower than the city average, before authorities boosted access for those communities.
“We knew they were going to be at much greater risk,” said Prof Sharon Friel, director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the Australian National University. “If there was a much greater focus on the policy responses, it wouldn’t have played out the way we’re seeing.”
NSW health data to 6 October, obtained by Guardian Australia, shows 137 (or 34%) of the 403 deaths during the Delta outbreak occurred in the south-western Sydney local health district. The department said it could not provide data by local government area for privacy reasons.
A further 100 deaths occurred in the neighbouring western Sydney local health district, close to 25% of all deaths since 15 June.
In Melbourne, the City of Hume in the city’s outer north has been hit hardest by the outbreak, though there are finally signs of stabilisation after a vaccination blitz.
Data tallied from Victorian health department statements shows the 28 deaths in the council area of Hume, in the outer north, represent about 31% of the 88 fatalities throughout Victoria during Delta.
The City of Hume is Melbourne’s third most disadvantaged local government area, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (Seifa), which considers a range of factors including income, employment, education, housing, access to services and English proficiency.
About 15% of deaths have occurred in Moreland, to the south of Hume, and 14% took place in Whittlesea, also in the city’s outer north.
Whittlesea is the city’s fourth most disadvantaged local government area, according to the Seifa index. In Moreland, many of the cases have been in the 3046 postcode, which includes Glenroy, Hadfield and Oak Park, close to Hume. Hadfield and Glenroy both rank well below the citywide Seifa score.
People line up to be vaccinated at the Broadmeadows town hall in Hume. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released last month found that last year there had been almost four times as many deaths due to Covid-19 recorded for people in the lowest socioeconomic group compared with those in the highest.
The report also cited Guardian analysis from last year that found of the 550 deaths attributed to specific Victorian homes in September last year, 41% occurred in facilities located in suburbs in the bottom 30% of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Dr George Disney, a research fellow in social epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, said the way virus homed in on disadvantaged communities had been “utterly predictable”.
“It’s almost like society is designed to deliver Covid to the most disadvantaged,” he said.
“The people on the lowest incomes, the people who are most unlikely to be able to work from home, because they’re doing jobs that naturally have more contact with people anyway.
“They’re often doing jobs that involve contact with other disadvantaged groups, people with disability, people in aged care. We knew this before Covid started.”
Local health districts are a considerably larger area compared to local government areas. For example, the south-western Sydney local health district stretches from the Sydney suburbs of Fairfield, Liverpool and Bankstown, to Bowral, south of Sydney.
However, most Covid cases in the health district have predominantly been recorded in the more disadvantaged, culturally diverse areas of Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and Campbelltown.
Western Sydney is a similarly sprawling health district, with boundaries from Auburn in the south, to Blacktown, and the more affluent Hills Shire in the north. While it is diverse, it includes pockets of high disadvantage, and cases have been concentrated in the more disadvantaged Blacktown and Cumberland local government areas.
Combined, south-western and western Sydney local health districts have a population of about 1.8 million people.
To their east, the local health districts of Sydney, south-eastern Sydney and northern Sydney, boast a population of about 2.4 million. Together, these three health districts – which includes areas in the inner west, northern beaches and eastern suburbs – account for 26% of deaths during the Delta wave.
This compares to 58% for the residents of south-western Sydney and western Sydney health districts.
Prof Evelyne de Leeuw, the director of the Centre for Health Equity Training, Research and Evaluation at UNSW, said there was a “clear correlation between socio-economic disadvantage and susceptibility to Covid infection”.
De Leeuw, who is based in south-western Sydney, said overcrowded housing in the area was another “severe issue” that “exacerbates the risk for Covid”.
In August, the NSW government rapidly increased vaccine access to south-western and western Sydney, including offering priority access to essential workers living there.
By this stage, 33 people had already died in south-western Sydney, nearly half of the 57 deaths at the time, figures tallied by Guardian Australia show.
Postcode data released at the time showed suburbs of south-western and western Sydney had some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, equal to about a third of some suburbs on the north shore, inner west and eastern suburbs.
In Victoria, about one month ago only 28.8% of all Hume residents were fully vaccinated. That was at the time the second-lowest rate in the state and compared to a metropolitan average of 39%.
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In response, Victoria announced a three-week vaccination blitz in Hume, while the federal government also boosted supply to the region. Vaccinations have now surged, with 86.3% of Hume residents having had their first dose.
Local doctors have also complained about data revealed in the Age newspaper showing Hume’s GPs had been receiving fewer doses of Pfizer compared to more affluent areas in the east of Melbourne, such as Boroondara, Whitehorse, Knox, Monash and Stonnington. To 10 October, there had been only three deaths across these five LGAs during the current outbreak.
Both Friel and Disney said governments’ vaccine programs should have given more consideration to prioritising poorer areas before Sydney and Melbourne were hit by outbreaks.
“That was an absolute policy failure,” Friel said.
“We have to recognise this policy response federally and at the state level has been silent when it comes to social equity. There should have been much better prioritisation of these populations.”