The Covid disaster unfolding in Wilcannia goes way past incompetence. It is a disgrace | Cherie von Hörchner

The disaster unfolding in Wilcannia is to the shame of authorities in government.

It is not, as rumours suggest, the fault of the Indigenous people of Wilcannia who for 18 months have been pleading for protection from the pandemic we all knew was coming.

That those false rumours have been given oxygen by the very politicians who have so failed the people of Wilcannia is a disgrace.

NSW health minister Brad Hazzard has said he “regrets” the comments he made during a press conference last week in which where he called attendees of a funeral in Wilcannia on 13 August “selfish” and likened them to partygoers in Maroubra.

But “regret” is not an apology, or even a retraction.

In fact, Hazzard went on to say that while “no disrespect was intended, it is crucial that everybody gets the message …”. In other words, while he was apparently regretful about what he said, he was happy to say it again anyway.

The front page of the Barrier Truth, Wilcannia’s local paper.
The front page of the Barrier Truth, Wilcannia’s local paper. Photograph: The Barrier Truth

The damage has been done; it is now part of Australian folklore that the people of Wilcannia only have themselves to blame.

That’s a lie.

FACT: On 13 August when the funeral in Wilcannia occurred, there were no restrictions in place that would have prevented such a gathering in regional NSW, and no public health orders by which police or the people of Wilcannia could have prevented others from entering the town from other parts of NSW.

FACT: The virus was not, as Hazzard claimed, “spread from Wilcannia to other parts of the state”. Covid was brought to Wilcannia from somewhere else in NSW as a direct result of the Berejiklian government’s failure to adequately contain the virus in the regions by restricting movement earlier.

FACT: Far from being “selfish”, the people of Wilcannia have been heroic in their attempts to care for each other, with little or no help from government slouches who were warned 18 months ago – by non-government agencies such as Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation and the people of Wilcannia – that disaster was on its way.

On 8 April 2020 – almost 18 months ago – the ABC quoted Justin Files, from Maari Ma, as saying that while various local health and Aboriginal groups had contacted the government requesting a lockdown, they’d received no reply.

“The NSW government has the authority to do that [lock down] by a public health order and we’re pushing as hard as we can for them to do that, not just in Wilcannia, but for Menindee and Ivanhoe as well,” he said.

The government did not respond and never mentioned Wilcannia in the national conversation – until now.

Wilcannia police and soldiers prepare a food run for people in Wilcannia.
Wilcannia police and soldiers prepare a food run for people in Wilcannia. Photograph: Barrier police district

What makes the situation even more bewildering is that a fool could have foreseen this disaster before the pandemic even began.

Wilcannia has been a public health crisis for years, its claim to national fame being that it has the lowest life expectancy in Australia (is anyone surprised a funeral might occur there?), with a desperate housing shortage (how, exactly, did far west local health district expect positive cases to “home isolate” in a town where many houses are homes to 10 or more?), and a river, once the lifeblood of the town, that has been virtually destroyed by government mismanagement.

This is not a rage at the people who work in the health system – the doctors, nurses, paramedics and volunteers all deserve our thanks and praise.

Nor is it a slight on those who hear gossip and pass it on – they can only believe what they’re told.

But when the very people who’ve allowed this disaster to happen point the finger of blame at the victims of their failures, it’s incompetence at best. But in all reality, it’s probably something worse.

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