When I drive into Walgett, into Bourke, into Enngonia, I almost want to be stopped by the police. I want them to ask to look at my ID, to see the letter from the news organisation that has sent me there, I want them to question where I have come from and why my reason to be travelling is essential.
But they don’t, I don’t get stopped. The only police presence I see is a woman waiting for her takeaway lunch at the Enngonia Oasis Hotel. I ask her where she is from, and whether they have been checking cars as they come into town – I’ve heard they’re doing that in Wilcannia. She’s from Manly and no, they’re not – they want to, but they don’t have the staffing.
Last week my Mum, who has been a registered nurse working in the same regional centre for 27 years, cut short her long-service leave to join the Royal Flying Doctors Service vaccination team. On Saturday she drove into Walgett for a Covid test, as is policy, before her first day vaccinating on Monday. The nurses at the testing clinic told her that swabs aren’t processed on the weekend, that she would have to wait until Tuesday to receive her result.
In town, someone tells me that Walgett recorded three cases yesterday, someone else tells me we had six – or did the Western district have six? They’re not sure. The news says that Dubbo has recorded nine cases then goes back to talking about Sydney. Dubbo is four hours away and I’m still not sure how many cases we had out here.
On our community Facebook page, a local Indigenous elder has posted a video of herself. She’s angry, she’s a close contact of an identified case and she’s been fined for breaching isolation orders to go to IGA. In the background you can hear children yelling and playing. Walgett only has the one supermarket, and it doesn’t offer delivery or click and collect.
In Bourke, a nurse at the Aboriginal Medical Health Service has dark bags under her eyes. In the past week she’s worked close to 70 hours, she tells me. She’s been driving back and forth to Enngonia, 100 kilometres away, to vaccinate residents in their homes. There is no hospital in Enngonia, no nurses and no vaccination centre or testing clinic. 15 per cent of the town’s residents have tested Covid positive so far, 30 per cent of the Indigenous population.
Do city people really not care about any of this? My first reaction was that of denial – of course they do, I thought, they just don’t know it’s happening.
But this platitude I tell myself doesn’t hold water. For those in the city, claiming ignorance towards issues of the regional and rural healthcare crisis no longer passes the pub test, as Anthony Albanese loves to say.
The same stories have been repeated over and over again for years now. Four Corners have covered it, so have Sky News, there’s been story after story shared by Australian media outlets, even the Washington Post has weighed in.
And then there are the 700 submissions to the Upper House Regional Health Inquiry, within which are stories of patients being asked to supply their own bandages and women receiving C-sections without adequate anaesthetic. These stories show a heartbreaking trend of medical staff struggling to do their jobs under the current system.
Now is not the time for the NSW Government, or anyone else in fact, to act surprised when hearing of the Covid-horror-stories coming out of regional and rural communities, of the lack of vaccines available, of Indigenous elders dying in their homes, of locals closing their doors on neighbours out of fear and confusion.
Now is not the time to say “I just didn’t know.”