As the Covid wave approaches remote WA, a population heads to the bush for protection

It’s a regular, hot Tuesday morning in the Kimberley and the dusty, pindan-red streets of Derby are deserted. Except, that is, for workers from the Derby Aboriginal Health Service, who are taking Covid vaccines house-to-house in a bid to protect the community.

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Photograph: Steve Waters/Alamy

“We have been struggling to achieve the high double-dose vaccination rates of the metropolitan areas, so that’s been the priority for the Kimberley,” says David Menzel, chair of the Kimberley regional group, which represents the district’s four shire councils.


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“We’re trying to get those second vaxes done as quickly as possible, but the reopening is sneaking up really quickly. We’re only four weeks away now and our remoteness and diverse community are huge obstacles.”

The Kimberley remains one of the least vaccinated regions of Australia, with just 67% of the population double-dosed, and about 60% of the Indigenous population. It’s a huge area – nearly half a million square kilometres – but home to just 36,000 people, most of whom are Indigenous.

Related: Indigenous health system faces ‘huge workload’ to close vaccination gap, experts warn

The reasons for hesitancy are manifold. Online misinformation and propaganda (much of it linked to evangelical churches in the US) has been virulent, especially on youth-oriented social media platforms such as TikTok, and in church groups.

Health services say the proliferation of “fake news” has been the biggest obstacle this year, including rumours that having the vaccine will usher in doomsday, cause infertility or wipe out Indigenous Australians.

For the older generation who grew up under the white Australia policy, mistrust in the government is strong, and many families remain semi-nomadic, moving frequently around the region.

Many have also struggled to take the virus seriously, with no major outbreaks in the region since the beginning of the pandemic.

Malcolm, 54, is a former stockman and homeless. Like many Indigenous Australians he is immunocompromised. Yet he has no intention of getting vaccinated.

“I don’t want it, if I get sick, I will use bush medicine,” he says.

“I don’t want to use white man’s medicine, the bush will look after me. I will go to the bush if Covid comes to Derby.”

‘Please come and get your jab’

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the bush has indeed protected many locals. When the first cases emerged in Halls Creek, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, families headed bush en masse, living off the land, fishing, hunting and waiting out the worst of the localised outbreak, which was spread by medical staff visiting the local hospital.

With Western Australia’s reopening date slated for 5 February, plans to manage an outbreak are building on the successes of early 2020.

In Balgo, the locals are planning to bus elderly and immunocompromised people to outstations in the bush when Covid hits. Regular food and medicine drops will be supplied by road, and by air if the roads are cut by flood waters.

In the west Kimberley, once abandoned outstations and remote communities are being repopulated by families who have left Broome, Perth and the larger Kimberley towns to wait out the pandemic and reconnect with family and country.

“I think it is a natural response in the Kimberley to go bush,” says Lorraine Anderson, the medical director of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service (Kams).

“Providing the people who go bush don’t have Covid, then it is not a bad thing. What is difficult is if people go bush and they are sick – it is very difficult for us to look after them. But in general when people head on country they look after themselves very well.”

In the coastal communities of Derby and Kalumburu, hand reels, sinkers and hooks are being offered as an incentive to get vaccinated, while in the desert communities grocery vouchers and meat packs are on offer, as well as T-shirts, mini-coolers, hats and regular community barbecues.

When vials of Pfizer have been opened and not enough people have turned up, doctors walk the dusty streets of small towns shouting: “We have Pfizer, we have Pfizer! Please come and get your jab!”

When the internet and phone lines went down in Halls Creek recently, the local health service used the time to corral locals for their jabs, doing laps around the footy oval, supermarket and petrol station offering lifts to the clinic.

A number of remote Kimberley communities have reached 100% vaccination rates. Anderson says their success hinged on local doctors, nurses and health workers being drawn from the community itself and “yarning” to their countrymen and women – often in local language or Aboriginal English, and on their own ground.

“What worked in the 100% communities is they had really good leadership from their elders,” Anderson says.

“If we have people from these communities in leadership roles spreading these health messages it makes a huge difference in terms of trust and how people receive and believe that information.”

Vaccination is now a matter of life and death. Anyone who gets Covid in the Kimberley and needs hospital treatment will have to be medically evacuated to Perth – about 2,800km away – as there aren’t enough respirators in the region to cope with an outbreak.

And in the wet season, which runs from December to March, smaller airstrips are often flooded and unusable.

‘Tough and resilient’

For Menzel, preparing for Covid has highlighted the fragile and insecure health infrastructure of the region. Wyndham hospital, in the east Kimberley, is operating on reduced hours as it cannot get enough staff. The region relies heavily on locums, as it routinely fails to attract long-term, permanent health staff.

“We have seen our health system has been stretched without Covid being in WA, so we are quite concerned about the capabilities of our system when it hits,” says Menzel. “If there are significant outbreaks, we’re quite scared about that for sure.”

Some unvaccinated remote communities will probably remain partially locked-down throughout 2022, though this is nothing new, as many have been living that way – with tourists and outside contractors banned – since early last year.

Though the region is looking at a trying few months ahead, Menzel sees some cause for optimism.

“There is a slight hope that we have a very tough and resilient population here,” he says. “So it may surprise us how resilient they are, given it’s not the easiest place to survive at the best of times.”

For Malcolm, the pandemic has been defined by more family coming home to the Kimberley, which means more fishing trips and time on country. There is an air of resignation in his views on Covid – another “white man’s sick” heading his way.

“I’ll be OK,” he says resolutely, his dark eyes steady under a black Akubra.

“Just go bush, stay bush. No worries then.”

Source: Thanks