‘Catastrophic failure’: Covid out of control in the NT, say Aboriginal groups

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Katherine Morrow/AAP</span>
Photograph: Katherine Morrow/AAP

Covid is “out of control” in central Australia, representing a “catastrophic failure” by the Northern Territory government to carry out its own emergency plans, according to the three biggest Aboriginal organisations in the NT.

The groups have accused the NT government of failing to adequately carry out emergency plans that had been made “well in advance” of the current outbreak.

“Many of the issues we are facing were foreseen, and plans made to address them. But there has been a catastrophic failure by government to discharge its responsibility to all Northern Territory residents by implementing these plans in Central Australia,” they wrote in a scathing letter to the NT chief minister, Michael Gunner.

Related: Elderly woman forced to isolate under a tree in remote community due to lack of facilities

The Central Land Council, Congress Aboriginal Health Service and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) – representing thousands of traditional owners, as well as the territory’s frontline medical services – demanded Gunner “act urgently” to lock down central Australia.

“This is our last chance,” they said. “We have been advocating continuously for firm action to slow the outbreak since it began in the early days of 2022. However, our requests have been ignored, or action taken too late or on too small a scale to make a real difference.

“There has been a significant failure by government agencies in Central Australia to put into practice the plans agreed with your government before the outbreak. This has directly led to Covid spreading out of control in the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia and beyond,” the letter said.

“This is our last chance to flatten the curve of new infections and hospitalisations and save lives that will otherwise be lost.”

The groups outlined a series of public health failures they say have occurred including slow contact tracing, the belated introduction of a mask mandate, and the failure to remove positive cases from crowded households.

“When positive cases were located in crowded households, they were left at home for more than 48 hours, by which time the virus had spread within and between households, and then to other town camps and houses,” they said.

“This was in contravention of all agreed plans to remove positive cases immediately from households where they were unable to safely self isolate.”

On Friday, Guardian Australia reported the case of a resident of the remote community of Yuendumu, who was pleading with the Northern Territory government to provide a local quarantine facility after her Covid-positive elderly relative was forced to sleep outside on the veranda and spend three days under a tree in order to safely isolate from the rest of the family.

Related: NT Aboriginal community demands answers after residents sent home from quarantine test positive for Covid

Community groups in Yuendumu also expressed frustration that a group of people taken into quarantine were “unexpectedly” sent home last week and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

The community members – who had been evacuated to the Alice Springs quarantine facility as close contacts – were flown home on 16 January and sent back to their homes. Local authorities said they had not been informed of their return. A number of the group were Covid-positive when tested by health workers in the following two days.

Leaked minutes of the Yuendumu local emergency health response group – made up of NT police, health workers and key community organisations – expressed concern that the “urban model” of managing Covid at home was not working in the community.

“It appears that the outbreak cannot be contained by using the tools (targeted testing) and practices (quarantine/lockout/living with Covid) in place. An approach that is not working for the community and more fit for an urban mainstream environment,” the minutes of the 17 January meeting said.

The letter to Gunner called for an “immediate lockdown” in central Australia, “to stop the movement of people and flatten the curve of new infections and hospitalisations”, which they said would give them time to set up a rapid response team for Alice Springs and the remote communities in Central Australia. They have also asked for rapid antigen tests and N95 masks to be distributed.

“We urge you to ignore those who say it is too difficult, too late, or too expensive, or that the Omicron variant of Covid is a mild disease and that we need not worry about it,” they said.

NT chief minister Michael Gunner said he understood the calls for a lockdown but did not think it would be workable.

Gunner said the territory’s response “remains the best in the world”.

“We need to concentrate our resources into those communities that have Covid and need actual care, and make sure those people get the care that they need – that’s where those resources are,” Gunner told the daily press briefing in Darwin on Friday.

“A lot of thought has gone into what our current measures are and why those are the measures,” he said.

“If you look at the Territory response, for two years we have been the best. Right now if you look at our caseload, the prevalence of Covid, how we are managing it. We have three people in ICU. Look at other jurisdictions and how they are handling it and compare it to the NT and take into account all our vulnerabilities, the Territory response remains the best in the world.”

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