The federal government was warned 18 months ago of the urgent need to protect the Covid-hit town of Wilcannia, leaked correspondence seen by Guardian Australia shows, with an Aboriginal health service pleading for immediate help at the time to prevent an outbreak.
The Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation wrote to the Indigenous Australians minister, Ken Wyatt, in March 2020, outlining “grave fears” for the far western New South Wales town if Covid were to spread to the vulnerable population there.
“Warnings from around the world are clear: the earlier we prepare and act, the better the outcomes will be. We cannot wait until the first case turns up in the community, or worse, the first hospital case presents,” the letter said.
“Basic mathematics says that by the time our first hospital patient presents, around 100 cases will already exist in the community, and this is based on best case modelling.”
The health service says its warnings appear to have been ignored, with no “tangible plan” put in place.
As of Monday, Wilcannia had recorded 69 coronavirus cases in a population of 720, the highest transmission rate in NSW.
A second letter from the health service, also seen by the Guardian, was sent last week to Scott Morrison, calling on him to take control of the “unfolding humanitarian crisis” in Wilcannia.
It said contrary to assurances by Gladys Berejiklian that the situation was under control, it was in fact “chaotic, and the mistakes and problems are mounting”.
“We do our work quietly, and try to fly under the radar of media and public attention as much as possible,” the letter to the prime minister said. “We cannot, however, sit quietly while the catastrophe in the Far West, and western NSW more broadly, continues to unfold.”
The second letter was copied to the NSW premier and the federal health minister, Greg Hunt.
The remote town of Wilcannia has been ravaged by the Covid outbreak in NSW. Photograph: Chris Graham/New Matilda
The initial letter to Wyatt, dated 23 March 2020, warned that the town’s community was at great risk because of overcrowded and poorly maintained housing, a lack of food security, a highly mobile population, low health literacy and issues with poorer health and chronic diseases.
“Urgent and drastic action is needed now, especially in setting-up fully functioning isolation/quarantine facilities and organising services to enable people to properly isolate at home,” Maari Ma said.
It suggested accommodation such as motels and caravan parks could be used for quarantining, suggested ways to safeguard against food shortages, and recommended that traffic on the Barrier Highway be prevented from stopping in Wilcannia.
“The poverty and extreme vulnerability of Aboriginal people and communities in the Murdi Paaki region is a direct result of decades of failed government policies. I’m sure you can understand our anxiety that these failures not continue, or worsen, throughout the COVID19 crisis,” Maari Ma’s chief executive, Bob Davis, wrote to Wyatt.
Maari Ma has confirmed the contents of the letter, and that it was sent in March last year. Friday’s letter to the prime minister was also copied to several other state and federal politicians.
In that second letter, Maari Ma laid out its frustrations that its warnings to the federal government had been ignored. It said it had also written to Berejiklian last year.
“Disappointingly, no tangible plan was in place prior to this outbreak that could have been easily implemented. As a result, we’ve been playing catch up from day one,” it said.
“Our systems and services are ill-prepared, actions are too slow to be implemented, our responses have been sub standard, existing resources and expertise is not sufficient, new resources and expertise (for example the Army and Ausmat) are not being used to their full potential.”
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Maari Ma said its worst fears had come to fruition and the predicted response was unfolding.
“In defence of local officials, it’s also true that they are hopelessly under resourced, and confronted by a wicked situation. Decades of neglect have combined with a more virulent strain of the virus and poor existing resources and expertise to create a perfect storm.
“For these reasons, we are urging the federal and state government to work cooperatively together to salvage what they can from the situation in Wilcannia. The fact of the matter is, the horse has already bolted in Wilcannia, so priority issues there today are humanitarian and acute medical care, in particular alternative accommodation.
“For your information, positive COVID-19 patients are still being … forced into overcrowded accommodation with people who have yet to contract the disease. This would only – and has only – occurred in Aboriginal communities.”
The letter concluded: “In closing, there is limited value in prosecuting the failures detailed above at this moment … However if we don’t learn quickly from the mistakes of our past, we’re doomed to repeat them.
“Our staff are increasingly being exposed to the virus, and our services are becoming more vulnerable to collapse by the day.”
The Guardian approached Wyatt’s office for comment on both letters.
A spokesperson said: “The Minister received and responded to the March 23, 2020 correspondence from the Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation.
“In acknowledging the significant work Maari Ma Health does for the Indigenous community, the Minister outlined a number of activities being undertaken by the Commonwealth to support states and territories, and Indigenous communities against the threat of COVID-19.”
The statement added: “The rapid spread of the Delta strain has been a challenge in many communities.
“There is a massive coordinated effort underway involving the Commonwealth and State Governments, Aboriginal Health Services, the Australian Defence Force, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, GPs, pharmacists, local charities and community groups, to increase vaccination numbers.
“The Minister, along with many other prominent Indigenous Australians, continues to urge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to protect their families and get vaccinated.”
Maari Ma said it would continue “working quietly behind the scenes, and we’ll collaborate with anyone who shows up in good faith and is prepared to do the work to address this crisis.”