House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


COVID-19: Indigenous Australians

4:44 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I would like to acknowledge the First Nations custodians of the land we are meeting on and the custodians of the parts of Australia that all of you are from. A few days ago we had our first Aboriginal person die of COVID-19. He was in Dubbo Base Hospital. He was just 50 years old. He was a grand-uncle who saw his grand-nephew just once. Unfortunately, he was not vaccinated.

We know that case numbers in western New South Wales just increase and increase and increase. These infections could have been prevented. This is too little, too late in western New South Wales. We know that the federal government were warned back in March 2020 that this was going to be the outcome if they did not step in. The death of this man, I am afraid, may not be the last death. There is still an unknown capacity of hospitals to be able to cope. There is still no clear evacuation plan. I know people who live in these communities. I spent the last two weeks talking to these people. They are in desperate need of help, yet they are left with a government that ignores them, a government that has planned poorly. The situation out there is a national crisis. These infections that have spread into these vulnerable communities could have been avoided. And now we see COVID scares in small communities like Muli Muli on the North Coast. Muli Muli has a very small population, something like 49 residents, and it's close to the Queensland border. We await the outcomes of the other screening in Muli Muli. We've seen this happening in so many regional communities that are vulnerable to this relentless virus.

The warnings about vulnerable communities like Wilcannia, like Brewarrina, like Walgett and like Bourke have been well known for many, many months. The federal government knew this was going to happen and did nothing to support these rural communities. The death of this gentleman and the deaths that will follow could have been avoided and should have been avoided. It is extremely worrying to see the reported outbreaks in regional communities of New South Wales when we know that our First Nations people are at a higher risk of contracting infections and diseases than non-Indigenous people.

There is also an increased risk of the spread of the disease in families who struggle to isolate when multiple families are living under the one roof. The use of 30 temporary motorhomes in Wilcannia is an admission by authorities that overcrowded housing is a real impediment to self-isolation, which is essential to stopping the spread and keeping the community safe. Some 2½ weeks after the town recorded its first case, we saw temporary motorhomes brought in last night. But we know that Wilcannia is not the only community facing the spread of COVID and overcrowding in houses. We are concerned about the whole country.

There's concern that the risk paired with underfunded social and health services in regional and remote areas means that our First Nations communities are facing a serious crisis. They have been plunged into uncertainty because of poor planning and poor foresight by the federal government. The health of these communities is at real risk. Families are stressed and struggling. People in priority categories are still not vaccinated. These communities deserve better. We must begin by empowering trusted local Aboriginal community organisations and leaders. But, based on what we're hearing on the ground and what we're seeing with the government's poor First Nations vaccination rates, this is not happening. We must allow First Nations people to have the lead in vaccine rollouts in these communities. This is part of the key to making vaccinations a reality in these regional and remote places.