The Morrison Government was warned about the detrimental impacts of a COVID-19 outbreak in western NSW by the community in a letter sent in March 2020.
According to Guardian Australia, the first letter was sent 18 months ago by Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Corporation to Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.
The letter, written by Maari Ma’s chief executive Bob Davis, notes whilst there had been acknowledgement of the “serious threat a COVID outbreak poses to remote Aboriginal communities” the focus of the Government at that time focused on “Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland, not western NSW”.
Davis said they had “seen little in terms of proactive Government action” which had led them to “suspect not much is happening”.
He noted the vulnerability of the Aboriginal community, outlining the “near impossible” restricted access to towns, the high rates of residential mobility, overcrowding and poor housing conditions, the lack of food security and essential hygiene products, low health literacy, high rates of chronic illnesses and lack of access to medical services.
Davis urged the Minister that action was needed “now” and offered ways to prepare the region for possible outbreak.
“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,” Davis wrote.
“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 COVID-19 crisis.”
Davis told Guardian Australia he had also sent a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian last year. Another had been sent on Friday to the Prime Minister along with many other federal politicians sharing the organisation’s frustrations.
Friday’s letter said the organisation had been “playing catch up from day one” due to a lack of planning “prior to this outbreak that could have been easily implemented”.
“Our systems and services are ill-prepared, actions are too slow to be implemented, our responses have been substandard, 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,” Davis wrote.
Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney described the situation as “too little too late”.
“We know that the Federal Government was warned back in March 2020, that this was going to be the outcome, if they did not step in. March 2020 — that is over 12 months ago,” she said.
Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said this highlights the “failures of the Morrison Government to listen to the people they’ve been elected to represent”.
“People on the ground know what’s best for their communities. The Australian Government hasn’t looked after First Nations people since colonisation, they need to hand over control of our affairs back to the people,” she said.
“This top-down approach isn’t working; First Nations people are getting sick and have died because of it.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Minister Wyatt said he had responded to Maari Ma. He acknowledged the work of the organisation and outlined “a number of activities being undertaken by the Commonwealth to support States and Territories, and Indigenous communities against the threat of COVID-19”.
These include the establishment of the National Food Security Taskforce, the alliance between the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the Department of Health and “on-the-ground contacts”, and the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce’s establishment of their Incident Management Team (IMT).
“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,” they said.
The Minister is continuing to urge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get vaccinated.
By Rachael Knowles