Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended efforts to protect Indigenous people from the coronavirus after the first Aboriginal death sparked heavy criticism of the vaccination rollout.
An unvaccinated man in his 50s who died at Dubbo hospital became Australia’s first Indigenous victim of the disease with an outbreak spreading in western NSW.
Mr Morrison said an emergency AUSMAT team and Defence personnel had been deployed to the region, working with the state government to boost vaccination rates.
“In many remote communities, because they feel like they’re a long way away from the cities where these things are happening, they can sometimes form a view they are protected,” he told 5AA radio on Tuesday.
“That’s not the case. The Delta variant can travel as we know it does.”
He said the response to the western NSW situation provided a model for other Indigenous communities across Australia.
“Not only is that helping us to directly influence that situation but we have developed a very good partnership model if that were to happen in South Australia, the Northern Territory or Western Australia.”
Labor’s Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Linda Burney said the federal government was squarely to blame for woeful Indigenous vaccination rates.
“This death and these infections could have been prevented. It is too little too late in western NSW,” she said.
“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. That is over 12 months ago.”
She was referring to a leaked letter from the Maari Ma Aboriginal health corporation to Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt in March 2020, outlining “grave fears” for the far western NSW town of Wilcannia if the virus spread to its vulnerable population.
Guardian Australia said it had seen the letter, in which the health service pleaded for immediate help.
“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,” the letter said.
“Basic mathematics says that by the time our first hospital patient presents, around 100 cases will already exist in the community, and this is based on best case modelling.”
The health service said no “tangible plan” was forthcoming, despite the warning. According to the Guardian, Maari Ma sent a second letter to Mr Morrison, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian last week, calling on the Prime Minster to take control of the “unfolding humanitarian crisis” in Wilcannia.
Up to 10 per cent of the residents of Wilcannia are now believed to have COVID.
Just 6.3 per cent of Aboriginal people in western NSW have been fully vaccinated against the virus, compared to 26 per cent of the general population.
Ms Burney holds grave concerns for people in the region infected during the outbreak.
“I am terribly afraid, [it] will be the first death of many. I’m not trying to be alarmist. I’m trying to be realistic,” she said.
Nationally, Indigenous vaccination rates have been tracking at about half of the wider population despite being a top priority in the rollout.
Mr Morrison said immunisation coverage was rising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.