WILCANNIA, Australia — The nurses drove up and down the dusty streets, from one family overwhelmed by the coronavirus to the next, until they arrived at a red brick house on the edge of the Outback town.
They were met at the door by two stray dogs lying in the sunbaked red dirt and a slender young Aboriginal woman wrapped in a surgical mask and blanket.
Brooke Johnson had heard the coughs begin to ripple through the crowded home a week earlier but had nowhere to go. Now she feared the virus had reached her 4-year-old son, whom she called outside to get tested.
“He started coughing yesterday,” she told the nurses, who donned protective gear to swab the curly-haired boy in a Spider-Man sweater on Aug. 30. “I just want to get him checked because we sleep together and I’m positive.”
So were her brother and sister; her aunt and uncle; her two cousins and her nephew.
So was the family of five a few doors down, and the household of nine a few doors up.
So was almost everyone she knew in Wilcannia.
In two weeks, more than one-tenth of the town of 600 people had been infected, making Wilcannia the hardest-hit place in Australia. Soon, the number of cases would approach 150, with about 90 percent of them Aboriginal people.
The remote community’s crisis reflects not only the recent collapse of “covid zero” in Australia but also the country’s historical failings.
For 18 months, state and federal leaders had been promising to protect Indigenous Australians, who have higher rates of chronic disease and shorter life expectancies. They were declared a priority for vaccination.
Nowhere was more vulnerable than Wilcannia, where a 2005 study found Aboriginal men had a life expectancy of just 37 — yet the nearest intensive care unit was 125 miles away.
When the pandemic began, the local Barkindji people were so worried that their children made signs begging tourists not to stop. For a while, it seemed to work.
But then an outbreak of the delta variant crept from Sydney’s wealthy eastern beaches to its working-class suburbs to the surrounding regions and across New South Wales.
And now, after a year and a half without an infection, Wilcannia was overrun.
“There has been a stunning lack of preparedness,” said Linda Burney, a federal lawmaker from the opposition Labor party who is an Aboriginal woman. “The people out there have been sitting ducks.”
Health officials say they had a plan but it was upended by a superspreader event that exposed three-quarters of the town.
“Imagine that happened in Washington,” said Umit Agis, chief executive for the state’s far-west health region. “I don’t think the system would cope.”
As cases began to climb in late August, a solitary doctor flew in with a portable ventilator he feared he would soon need.
“I feel like I’m in one of those cowboy movies where it’s quiet, too quiet,” said the doctor, Randall Greenberg. “Someone is about to attack.”
‘They knew this was going to happen’
The road to Wilcannia is lined with dead kangaroos. Once a prosperous river port that sent steamboats full of wool downstream, the town has faded into a struggling pit stop on a pancake-flat highway.
Two weeks into its outbreak, Wilcannia’s town center was nearly silent. Aside from an open pickup window at the pub, the only sign of life was the store, serving a handful of anxious locals.
As she loaded groceries and diapers into her car, Saphire Hall stopped to vent to a neighbor. The mother of four had already copped a $725 fine for giving her cousin a lift during the outbreak. Now she risked a $3,630 penalty if she visited her elderly and disabled in-laws. Online fundraisers had collected almost $300,000 for the town, but fights were brewing over where the money should go, and residents had yet to see a cent.
“The community is supposed to stick together, but they ain’t,” said Hall, 37.
“It’s not right,” said Janell Evans, 61, as her 9-year-old granddaughter sat barefoot on the sidewalk, eating candy. “We can’t survive out here.”
Evans feared for her nephew, who had lung problems, and her son, who had a weakened immune system.
“They knew this was going to happen,” she said angrily through a surgical mask. “They knew it would only take one person to spread it in the whole community.”
For a year and a half, Australia prided itself on keeping the coronavirus out of Aboriginal communities. As recently as Aug. 5, Prime Minister Scott Morrison touted his administration’s success.
A week later, the virus reached Wilcannia.
Locals had feared what would happen if the contagion came to a place so remote yet overcrowded. Wilcannia sits in the center of the Central Darling Shire, an area nearly twice the size of Maryland but with fewer than 2,000 people. That makes it expensive to build housing, said shire administrator Bob Stewart.
“You’re really in the Outback here,” he said.
But many feel race has played a role in the treatment of a town that is almost three-fourths Indigenous.
“As First Nations people, we have faced genocide, we have faced stolen generations, we have had Black deaths in custody,” said Brendon Adams, who has lived in Wilcannia for two decades but belongs to the Kuku Yalanji people of northeastern Australia. “And we have a Third World housing situation.”
In March 2020, Adams and other community leaders met with Stewart, Agis and state officials to urge them to close the town to outsiders. State emergency officials rejected the idea, Stewart said, so locals put up signs pleading for people to stay away.
Health officials understood the virus would tear through overcrowded houses, Agis said, so they contracted with motels and campgrounds in Wilcannia and other towns to serve as isolation facilities.
But when the virus arrived via a large Aboriginal funeral and wake on Aug. 13, contact tracers were overwhelmed and some isolation facilities refused to take positive cases, Agis said.
“Covid hit us like a cyclone,” Adams said. “It came in with so much devastation. And we were unprepared.”
Less than 2 percent of Aboriginal people in the Central Darling Shire had been fully vaccinated when Sydney’s outbreak began in June, according to data obtained by The Washington Post. When the virus hit Wilcannia two months later, the figure was 17 percent — half of the non-Indigenous population’s vaccination rate.
Ronnie Murray was visiting family in Wilcannia for “sorry business,” a traditional Aboriginal period of mourning, after the death of a relative. Police pulled up to the small house in the Mallee — one of two Barkindji neighborhoods bookending the Whiter, better-off part of town — and told everyone inside to walk to the football field to get tested.
By the time his result came back positive, Murray, who was partially vaccinated, was racked with body aches. Five others in the house initially tested positive, he said, but health officials told everyone to stay inside. Within a few days, two more were infected.
Murray’s brother, William, who was still negative, moved outside into a tent donated by a community elder. When Murray demanded his brother be put up somewhere, health officials moved William to a motel, then to a campground where he was flanked by positive cases.
“I was going out there to get away from corona,” William said, “not live next door to people who got it.”
Officials eventually moved him back to the motel, where there were also positive cases, but fewer and farther apart.
“It’s like they don’t really care about us Black fellas out here,” William said.
Agis said every affected family was offered a place to isolate but some did not want to leave Wilcannia. The Murrays deny they were given that choice, however, and Agis acknowledges that officials acted too late.
“In hindsight, we probably could have done everything two weeks earlier,” he said.
“I think we all would have liked a better level of planning,” added Stewart, the shire administrator.
“There is still no plan!” roared Ronnie Murray as he stood in his front yard near the now-empty tent on Aug. 30. He was on Day 12 of “isolation” in the crowded house. On the news, Australia had been evacuating Afghans from Kabul. But here in the Outback, he felt the nation was neglecting its own.
“We’re meant to be the First Nations people,” Murray said. “They’d rather go to another country and help people.”
‘In the eye of the storm’
Patricia Wilson walked barefoot to the riverbank and began to snap branches off emu bushes and eucalyptus trees. She stuffed the leaves into a metal tin and lit them on fire.
“They say it kills the corona,” the 35-year-old said as she circled the campground in a leopard-print bathrobe, wafting the fragrant smoke.
But it was too late for Wilson and most of those quarantined here. Officials had begun to move positive cases and close contacts to the campground 1.5 miles outside Wilcannia a week into the outbreak. Of the 13 people in the cabins, only five had yet to test positive, and anger was growing.
“Instead of putting all the positives on one side and the negatives on the other side, they mixed us all up here,” said Leaetta Hunter, whose teenage daughter had arrived negative but tested positive after being put next to those with the coronavirus.
Leaetta’s cousin Raelene Hunter had been the first to arrive after testing positive. A few days later, her 19-year-old son, Jai Kirby, had been put next to her. When the pandemic hit Australia last year, Kirby had spent weeks living by the river to avoid the virus. Now, as he awaited his test result, he was contemplating going back.
Everyone quarantined at the campground was Aboriginal. They weren’t allowed to use the washing machines, so some did laundry in the river. Health workers brought hospital food, but few ate it. When a relative dropped off kangaroo tails, Raelene Hunter and Anthony Dutton made a campfire and scooped the coals over the bush meat.
Dutton’s family had been made to walk to the park in their flip-flops.
“We passed the police,” he said. “We thought they might give us a lift, but all they asked was our names and they kept going.”
The trek had triggered such severe breathing problems for his daughter that the 17-year-old, who had already tested positive, was taken to the hospital the next day, he said.
New South Wales Police Assistant Commissioner Brett Greentree said he was unaware of the incident.
Many said they were angry authorities had stopped Wilcannia from closing to outsiders and then did not keep the virus out. They felt sacrificed for an economy that barely benefited them.
“If they had stopped the flights and things, we wouldn’t all be like this,” Raelene Hunter said as she stirred the coals.
Two days later, her son received the dreaded news: He, too, was positive. The teen began having a panic attack, Raelene recounted. But then a health worker called back to say it had been a mistake. Kirby was so fed up he left the campground without permission.
Agis said there that had been three false positives in 33,000 tests in the far-west health region and that concerns around the food and laundry had been addressed. But he acknowledged that mixing positive and negative cases at the campground was “not ideal” and that more should have been done to keep them apart.
“It’s been a sharp learning curve for us,” he said.
By the week’s end, the state government’s response was finally starting to come together. Tents for emergency workers sprang up on the football field, with 30 motor homes for affected families due to arrive a few days later.
But the damage was done. Aboriginal people had begun to die of covid-19 in the state. In Wilcannia, the tiny hospital now had its first elderly covid patient, and doctors felt it was a matter of time until more arrived. (Agis would later say hospitalizations had proven lower than feared.)
“We’re in the eye of the storm,” Adams said. “On the other side of the eye is more storm.”
In the Mallee, Brooke Johnson’s son was now positive and her aunt’s breathing was getting worse.
A few doors down, Raelene Hunter had moved back home after being released from the campground. Health workers had told her she needn’t worry about reinfection from her relatives, who were still positive, she said.
After everything that had happened in Wilcannia, she wasn’t sure what to believe.