Governments have leapt into action to tackle a food crisis in the COVID-19 stricken town of Wilcannia but residents say it’s taken a crisis for their calls for more housing to be heard.

The small town in western New South Wales has a high Aboriginal population, and was hit with the virus after a funeral held before the State went into lockdown became a super spreader event.

On Sunday, there were 67 cases of the virus in the Central Darling Shire — with more than 60 cases in Wilcannia alone. That’s about 10 per cent of the community’s approximately 600 residents.

Though the local council had stockpiled non-perishable food before COVID-19 hit the town, when the virus arrived the scale of the outbreak and number of people isolating resulted in a delay as volunteers had to be trained to safely deliver hampers.

“Wilcannia is a rural and remote locality in far western New South Wales; we’ve got two and a bit hours to the nearest centre of Broken Hill, so getting things quickly involves large amounts of time and travel,” said Bob Stewart, Administrator of the Central Darling Shire Council.

Hampers were initially only for those isolating and their families, but when the town’s only grocery store was temporarily closed after a COVID-19 scare, that was extended to anyone who was in need.

Within a week, a joint taskforce of Wilcannia Central School, Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation, Regional Enterprise Development Institute (REDI.E), Central Darling Shire Council, Aboriginal Affairs NSW and the Local Emergency Management Committee were handing out food and sanitary hampers.

As of August 21, 566 food hampers and 173 personal hygiene hampers had been delivered to community members.

The town’s plight has attracted the support of people around Australia. A GoFundMe set up by community member Taunoa Bugmy received more than $300,000 in pledges before donations were turned off.

Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Jenny Thwaites said the Wilcannia community pulled together and got the work done.

“We’ve got a group of people in health, Aboriginal health, and other community people, our community service providers, council and the police working really hard to ensure that people have food,” she said.

But Thwaites said the outbreak has been exacerbated by severe overcrowding in the town — something that the local council has been calling for assistance with for years.

“The negative side I will aim fairly and squarely at the State and Federal Governments,” she said.

“One of the reasons why [COVID-19] has been such an issue here and why the numbers have gone up is the overcrowding.”

“One of the very early people who tested positive, two of them were [living] in a house of 10 [people]. And so of course [the numbers] went from two to 10.”

Thwaites said the State and Federal Governments need to provide more subsidies to housing providers and lift rent assistance.

“Housing providers can’t set rent at a level that covers their costs, then they can’t do some of the maintenance that’s necessary,” she said.

“People in a number of cases that I know of choose to pay the power bill rather than the rent.”

Though authorities on the ground are working to set up tent cities and bring in demountable buildings to provide overcrowding relief during the crisis, Thwaites said there needs to be more sustainable, long-term funding.

“They put $50 million into the Aboriginal Housing Office last year, to go across all Aboriginal housing in New South Wales, for upgrades or buildings,” she said.

“But as I’m sure you can all work out $50 million does not go far, particularly when you’re looking at rural and remote areas.”

Stewart has been Administrator at the Central Darling Shire since the Council was placed in administration in 2019. He says reports show there has been little improvement in the overcrowding since at least 2016.

“Council has certainly been lobbying for [more housing] in my three years and it was sitting in some strategic documents when I arrived here,” Stewart said.

He said better housing would have made the current crisis less severe.

“I don’t know if it would have slowed the infection rate, but it certainly would have enabled people to isolate when they became infected or if there was other housing stock available in the community to relocate people that weren’t infected,” he said.

Stewart hopes the crisis triggers debate about service delivery in far western NSW rural and remote communities.

“I think recovery here is about making sure we improve the housing stock in New South Wales,” he said.

“This is an issue that’s been identified for many many years. This is the time that we need action.”

By Sarah Smit