Moree’s COVID outbreak has sent hundreds of Aboriginal people into isolation, but it’s the town’s Aboriginal organisations that are taking the lead on the multi-agency response to the emergency.

The New South Wales town has a large Aboriginal population; with 21.6 per cent of the population identified themselves as Indigenous according to the 2016 census.

In the Moree Plains Local Government Area, there were 138 active cases of COVID-19 on November 11.

Of those, 121 were in Aboriginal people.

Gomeroi man and Deputy Chair of the Moree Local Aboriginal Land Council, Lloyd Munro Snr feels that the town’s crisis has been overlooked by the media.

“Not much is talking about Moree at the moment, especially in the Sydney media. We seem to think that we’re forgotten people,” Munro said.

Overcrowded housing is a problem for families in lockdown, and with extra agricultural workers in town to gather a bumper harvest, getting rooms in motels to isolate is difficult.

“It’s one of the best harvests we’ve had for many, many years. You add that to the health situation with COVID and our town’s very busy at the moment, but motels are taken up by a lot of those workers,” Munro said.

“So when you’re looking to quarantine, especially when you’ve got large families and some of those people that have got COVID, you got to move them out of their houses into motels.”

“We lack numbers there.”

Forecast heavy rainfall and flooding warnings in place for the town are just another stress, Munro said.

Munro said local Aboriginal organisations including Pius X Aboriginal Corporation and Miyay Birray Youth Services have been on the frontline of the response.

When a family goes into isolation in the town, Miyay Birray is notified and then directs the support agencies including Resilience NSW and the Salvation Army where to take packages.

“We already have that local knowledge of families in town, and if one person’s isolating, we know if there’s a person that would be the carer of that family,” said Miyay Birray’s CEO and Anaiwain man, Darrel Smith.

“So we know that there may be additional needs for a person that’s going into isolation.”

Smith said at the beginning of the outbreak, organisations had to jump into action to create an effect, coordinated response.

“We did have to have some meetings between all of the services to say ‘this is what we need to have in place, this is the way it should happen to make sure there’s no duplication or nobody falling in the gaps’,” he said.

“There was a couple of occasions in the first few days where that did happen. A family might have missed out on the first day, but then they got picked up on the second day.

“I think after this we’ll probably have even better relationships between the organisation’s about how we can support the community together.”

Smith said that Miyay Birray’s coordination role has helped Moree’s Aboriginal community’s anxieties about getting through lockdown.

“For anybody that has been rang up and told that ‘you’ve got COVID and have to isolate’, there’s that fear factor there,” he said

“But once we’ve started delivering services out to them and they know that they’re going to be looked after, it’s a lot more comforting for them.

“They know that they can ring a person or an organisation that they already know to get looked after.”

Elizabeth Grist, Hunter New England Local Health District COVID-19 response lead said isolating at home can often present a problem for locals.

“Hunter New England Local Health District (HNELHD) provides cultural support to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who test positive to COVID-19 and their families, through our Aboriginal Cultural Support team,” she said.

“The team works with Aboriginal people and their families to identify what’s required to isolate safely.

“If they cannot do so at home, we will help with options for moving to available supported hotel accommodation, where they can isolate and receive daily nursing and medical assessments if required.”

By Sarah Smit