'They're winging it': Wilcannia Aboriginal community feels left behind in worsening Covid outbreak

Wilcannia's main street. Inset: Parkes MP Mark Coulton and Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council leader Michael Kennedy with his wife and one of their children. Pictures: Dion Georgopoulos, Sitthixay Ditthavong, Supplied
Wilcannia's main street. Inset: Parkes MP Mark Coulton and Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council leader Michael Kennedy with his wife and one of their children. Pictures: Dion Georgopoulos, Sitthixay Ditthavong, Supplied

Nearly one in 10 residents in the small western NSW town of Wilcannia have tested positive to Covid as the federal government faces tough criticism over its patchy vaccine rollout to vulnerable communities.

The rural town of less than 1000 residents, three-quarters of them Aboriginal, is home to another concerning cluster in the state's worsening Delta outbreak, with Wilcannia's tally climbing to more than 50 in just a few short weeks.

Federal National Party member for Parkes Mark Coulton said communities were being supported, but the recent outbreak had ramped up the urgency.

"I am concerned, and we have been concerned all the way along," Mr Coulton told The Canberra Times.

"There's been a bit of misinformation on social media, a bit of hesitancy and a bit of trepidation at some of the [vaccines'] side effects that have slowed the uptake.

"We are seeing massive numbers now in Dubbo and the other western towns being vaccinated.

"It's been a bit piecemeal in a way, but bit by bit we're getting it covered."

The small western NSW town facing its first Covid outbreak

Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council leader Michael Kennedy, who is one of the small town's Covid cases, said things were different on the ground.

Mr Kennedy and his wife are both fully vaccinated but still contracted the virus along with their two children.

The region's Indigenous vaccination rates have fallen far behind the rest of the state. Less than 7 per cent of the Indigenous population in western NSW is fully vaccinated. The vaccination rate for the non-Indigenous population sits at 26 per cent.

Many of the town's Aboriginal residents have chronic diseases, Mr Kennedy said, making them among the first eligible for vaccinations.

But six months into the rollout, there was still hesitancy among the community and little support from those in government.

"It seems like they're winging it every day," Mr Kennedy said.

"There should have been a plan put in place a long time ago around these smaller communities.

"We always felt like we've been left behind and alone out here and it's no different now."

A national plan for vulnerable Indigenous communities

The outbreak across NSW, which recorded more than 1000 cases on Thursday, has seen other Indigenous communities in rural and regional parts of the state affected.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt told Parliament 34 per cent of Indigenous Australians had received their first jab, with 18 per cent being fully vaccinated.

Misinformation about vaccine side effects and its supply had been a challenge to increasing that rate, he said.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Labor's Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman, Linda Burney, argued the government needed to work harder to address the issues.

"There has to be, in my view, a national plan for vulnerable, Indigenous communities," Ms Burney told 2GB on Thursday.

Labor wants to bolster local vaccination resources and see localised data released on vaccination rates and supply, to identify areas of risk and need. Confusion and misinformation among the community would also need to be addressed.

A modelling report released by the Doherty Institute has conceded there will still be Covid cases and deaths, but asserts health authorities could manage the response.

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Mr Coulton said he'd love to see his predominantly rural electorate at even higher vaccination rates, but he had faith in the existing plan.

"The outbreak in western NSW has certainly focused people on getting vaccinated and I have no doubt that when the time comes, they'll be up there with the rest of the state," he said.

"If I could have 100 per cent of my people covered, that would be ideal. But we've got to have faith in the [health] advice that we're given, and if the advice says 80 per cent, then I'm happy to go with that."

Mr Kennedy is one of the lucky ones in Wilcannia. He's fully vaccinated and his family has avoided serious illness so far.

His concern remained focused on the rest of his community, which he felt had been an afterthought during the government's 18-month response to the pandemic.

"On an overall scale, [the government] needs to deal with these situations a lot better," he said.

"Wilcannia is not going to be the last small community to go through something like this."

This story 'They're winging it': Indigenous communities left behind in Covid outbreak first appeared on The Canberra Times.