Protecting Indigenous Australians from COVID-19 has been one of our nation’s greatest successes during the pandemic, but the outbreak in NSW is now putting that achievement at risk.
Since the start of the pandemic it has been understood that Indigenous communities, especially in the outback, pose a unique health challenge because they lack basic health services and many people live in overcrowded housing. Indigenous Australians also suffer more from chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and cancer which raise the risk of hospitalisation or death from COVID-19. In the US, Native Americans who face similar challenges are seven times more likely to die of COVID-19 than average.
No Indigenous deaths have been recorded in Australia so far. Australian authorities have until now done a great job working with Indigenous people to keep COVID-19 out of remote communities, using local knowledge and talking to local people to spread culturally appropriate health messages. An outbreak at a gold mine in the Northern Territory in June was contained by contact tracing and testing.
But this week at least four cases have escaped out of Greater Sydney’s porous perimeter and spread west to Dubbo and Walgett in the heart of an Indigenous community of about 25,000 along the Darling River and its tributaries.
If it spreads to the scores of tightly linked communities in the region, this outbreak could be much harder to control. While the local government areas affected are now in lockdown, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has written to the federal government seeking reallocation of resources and vaccines to protect the region, pointing out that the federal government took responsibility for vaccinating remote Indigenous communities. National cabinet agreed on June 8 to make all Indigenous Australians aged between 16 and 49 eligible for a Pfizer vaccine. The vaccines were supposed to be distributed from July 1.
Mr Hazzard said, however, that “a very substantial percentage, in fact by far the majority of Aboriginal people” in the west of NSW have still not been vaccinated.
According to the Australian Immunisation Register, as of August 9 only 37 per cent of residents over the age of 15 in far west NSW have received at least one vaccine dose, lower than any other region in the state. Rates are even lower in other outback regions with large Indigenous communities in Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Adding to the problem, border closures have restricted access for remote fly-in health services. Victoria’s vaccination rates in areas with high Indigenous populations are considerably better. Those areas are at or near the state average.
The failure to vaccinate Indigenous Australians in remote communities is inexplicable at a time when many less vulnerable groups have received their dose. They deserve priority access to the available doses of the Pfizer product, which can provide protection much faster than AstraZeneca.