By Jack Marx, Cherie von Hörchner and Chris Graham
Leaked documents reveal the NSW Government didn’t just ignore desperate pleas from the Wilcannia community to address chronic overcrowding at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; on multiple occasions, bureaucrats aggressively dismissed basic solutions put forward by community members, refusing requests to lock the town down before the virus arrived.
In desperation, local Aboriginal leaders approached the Central Darling Shire Council in April last year, requesting emergency funding to purchase tents so that Wilcannia residents could isolate in their own backyards if the virus arrived. At the same time, Australians rushing home from overseas were being put up in five-star accommodation in Sydney and Melbourne, at taxpayer’s expense. And complaining about it.
The request met a hostile reception from bureaucrats from the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services, and the issue of overcrowding was removed from the weekly agenda of the Local Emergency Management Committee, the body charged with keeping residents safe during the pandemic.
Just over a year later, the virus hit, spreading to more than 10 percent of the community in less than a week. Today, less than two months after the outbreak began, 151 people – more than one-third of Wilcannia’s Aboriginal population – has now been infected, making the transmission rate by far the worst in the country.
The revelations are contained in leaked minutes from the weekly Local Emergency Management Committee meetings in 2020, from March to June, copies of which have been obtained by Barrier Truth. They reveal a NSW Government bureaucracy that was at times indifferent to local Aboriginal concerns around the pandemic, but also occasionally openly hostile to their proposed solutions.
The minutes also make clear the NSW Government was well aware of the overcrowding problem in Wilcannia long before the outbreak that crippled the community last month.
Officials knew that a lack of appropriate accommodation in the community meant self-isolation in the event of an outbreak would be virtually impossible. Despite this, the community was repeatedly told overcrowding was “not the issue”, and requests from the community for help were aggressively deflected.
The minutes also reveal that, before the virus arrived, the NSW Government refused repeated community requests to prevent through traffic on the Barrier Highway from stopping in Wilcannia, with senior NSW police advising the LEMC that a “lockout” of passing traffic was “not on”.
But once the community was infected, police set up roadblocks on the Barrier Highway, and the community was locked down into overcrowded housing, virtually guaranteeing the virus would spread quickly and widely. Additional police and the Australian Army were then brought into town to ensure “compliance” by the Aboriginal population.
That compliance measure was, and remains, targeted solely at Wilcannia’s Aboriginal population – 100 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the town are Indigenous people.
What the minutes say
On March 30, the LEMC minutes record the first recognition from the NSW Government that overcrowding in the community is a problem:
“Denise McCallum reported that 7 Rooms available for self-isolation at the Wilcannia hospital (LOW RISK) Transfer to Broken Hill for Moderate/Severe Risk 10 Bed ward ready. Self-isolation still an issue, available accommodation in regions being investigated e.g. motels, hotels, teacher housing, police barracks.”
Denise McCallum was a senior NSW Health executive within the Far West Local Health District (FLWHD). She serves as General Manager District & Remote Health Services until Friday.
The same minutes also record:
“Brendan Hedge (sic) is collating all information and already has started on a list of available Accommodation”.
“Brendan Hedge” is Brendan Hedger, the most experienced bureaucrat in the Far West in charge of disaster planning and relief.
On April 14, Mr Hedger would feature more prominently in the minutes, after the General Manager of the Central Darling Shire, Greg Hill, tried to lobby the LEMC for isolated accommodation for members of the community most at risk.
“Greg Hill: – Asked if those that are highly vulnerable could be placed in accommodate (sic) for isolation.
“Brendan Hedger: – replied No! where would you stop please note this decision is not dollar driven but resources driven”.
Two weeks later, Mr Hill once again raised the issue of alternative accommodation, after representations from local Aboriginal leaders. And once again he was shot down. On April 27, the minutes of the LEMC meeting record this exchange:
“A discussion on Isolation arose. Community want tents supplied to spread out and prevent overcrowding.
Comment received by Lyndon NO! we have finite resources and they are to be used for isolation cases only. Tents would not address the contact issues, its (sic) too cold this time of year, and they would still need to go back into the house to shower, wash, cook.”
‘Lyndon’ is Lyndon Gray from the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. To underscore Mr Gray and the Government’s view, the minutes note:
“Overcrowding is an issue that was here before the COVID-19 outbreak and will be here well after, solving 1 problem will create 5 more.”
In desperation, local leaders Monica Kerwin (Chair, Wilcannia Working Party) and Michael Kennedy (Chair, Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council) formally sought funding from the Central Darling Shire to purchase tents, so that community members could at least isolate in their own backyards or ‘go bush’. Mr Hill took the formal request to the next LEMC meeting on May 4. The response he drew was even more hostile than the previous weeks.
“Greg Hill wishes for input concerning application for funding request being for $10 thousand dollars to supply Wilcannia locals whom have overcrowding issues with Tents and sleeping bags. Jenny Twaites [General Manager of the Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council] commented it would be much appreciated [and] will cover the overcrowding issue.Lyndon Gray replied it is not our role to tell Council what to do, this is not the place for this discussion and with the cold months coming up he feels it is not a good idea. Jenny Twaites [said] it will help those sleeping on verandas. Craig Oxford responded COVID-19 is the issue here not overcrowding. Tony stated that it is taken on board. Greg asked for assistance as he was wondering if there would be ramifications for other agencies. Denise McCallum offered to let Brendon Hedger know of the issue and have him call Greg Hill to discuss. Anthony Moodie requested that the issue be removed from the meeting. Greg Hill did not agree and read out the e-mail request, Anthony Moodie would offer no comment.”
At the time, Craig Oxford was the most senior health bureaucrat based in Wilcannia, and Anthony Moodie was the Inspector in Charge at Wilcannia Police Station.
(A spokesperson for NSW Police told Barrier Truth that the issue being discussed on May 4 “was a matter for Council” and thus “outside the scope of that immediate LEMC meeting”, and it was for that reason “Insp Moodie requested the item be discussed directly with Council.”)
Ultimately, the community’s attempts to get funding for tents were defeated. So instead, tents were delivered to Ms Kerwin by the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, the peak Indigenous political body for the region, headquartered hundreds of kilometres away in Cobar. They would come in handy a year later, when the outbreak began in August, and community members were forced to isolate in the tents when it became clear the FWLHD wasn’t prepared for the rapid spread of the virus.
“I had the tents in storage,” Ms Kerwin said. “When COVID hit, I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what do I do?’”
They were quickly distributed throughout the community, although there weren’t enough to go around, nor was it sufficient to prevent widespread transmission.
As Chair of the Wilcannia Working Party, Ms Kerwin served on the Local Emergency Management Committee in the early days of the pandemic. She said she eventually walked away from the LEMC process last year in frustration at what she says was a lack of concern from some NSW Government officials, and a refusal to act on even basic requests.
“The community was the problem, not COVID. That’s how we felt, that we were the issue,” Ms Kerwin said.
“Every time I sat in a meeting I said; ‘We need to tackle the overcrowding situation’. We were just trying to isolate people from a virus, but they were more or less going around saying; ‘Here they go, asking for things again.’”
The minutes of the LEMC meetings also record Ms Kerwin supporting a lockdown of Wilcannia.
On March 30, 2020, Ms Kerwin voiced her support for a lockdown, along with Jenny Thwaites from the Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council, and Bob Stewart, the administrator of the Central Darling Shire Council. That lockdown never happened until the virus arrived 18 months later.
“The community had a meeting in the park, and we decided we needed to come up with a plan to lock Wilcannia down now, to put up roadblocks, to shut up the toilet facilities, to tell tourists to pass through Wilcannia, to not to get food and fuel,” Ms Kerwin told the Barrier Truth.
“We were told they needed to keep traffic flowing. To [the NSW Government] it was just another Aboriginal community. It was just Wilcannia.”
The LEMC minutes from April 14, 2020 note:
“Andrew Spliet: – Lockout not on given discussion thus far, roads must stay open, signage can be used to advise no-one from the area may stop/stay in line with current health orders. Deputy SEOCON, Gary Worboys stated that they don’t believe a lockdown will work.”
Andrew Spliet is the Superintendent in charge of the Barrier Police District. Gary Worboys is a Deputy Commissioner and the State Emergency Operations Controller (SEOCON).
Ms Kerwin says once the virus arrived, lockdown was the first thing the NSW Government did, sending in additional police and soldiers from the Australian Army to make sure it happened quickly.
“They wouldn’t lock Wilcannia down last year to keep the virus out, but once it was here they lock us down in overcrowded housing.
“The extra police and army were only sent here for compliance. They weren’t sent here to support anything – they were sent here literally to enforce the law.
“Whenever the police went to a household to do a compliance check, you had the Army standing there waiting for anything to happen with the household.
“It was very intimidating for a lot of community members to have two police and four army men standing at their front door or gate.”
Ms Kerwin also slammed the eventual response to the overcrowding by NSW Health – 30 motorhomes, which arrived in the community a fortnight ago.
“It took nearly a month before the vans arrived. It was too little, too late.
“We told them if COVID hits Wilcannia and an Aboriginal person gets it, we know the Aboriginal community. We’re Aboriginal. We know who we socialise with, and we knew it was going to be the way it is now.
“At the end of the day, the biggest threat to the community was [institutionalised] racism, not a virus. And it still is to this very day.
“We’re still facing that today.”
Chris Graham is editor of New Matilda. https://newmatilda.com/