(Sydney) – The Australian government should urgently act to prevent an outbreak of the Covid-19 Delta strain from having devastating outcomes for vulnerable First Nations and prisoner populations, Human Rights Watch said today.
Although the federal government designated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults as a priority group for vaccinations in January 2021, Indigenous communities with low vaccination rates in the state of New South Wales (NSW) are registering growing numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases. Reported Covid-19 cases in the NSW prison system are also at the highest level recorded in the country since the pandemic began.
“The federal government and New South Wales authorities left First Nations people dangerously exposed to Covid-19 with limited access to vaccines,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Australia’s federal, state, and territory governments should not repeat the failings in NSW and should urgently improve vaccine access and health care for Indigenous communities.”
Australia’s vaccine rollout, which began in February, has been slow. Only 27 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among developed countries. After frontline workers, the government prioritized access to vaccine by age group, starting with older Australians, but First Nations adults have always been a priority group. Vaccine supply issues have contributed to the low rates as the government has struggled to secure enough doses for its population.
All Australians over age 18 are now eligible for vaccination. Vaccines for children over 12 at higher risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19 were approved in August.
New South Wales is home to the largest population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. In 2020, health experts and Indigenous leaders warned that First Nations communities across Australia were susceptible to contracting the coronavirus due to weak health care and social protection, and bad outcomes from Covid-19 due to underlying health conditions.
Indigenous Australians experience a burden of disease 2.3 times as high as that of non-Indigenous Australians, and life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is approximately eight years shorter than for the non-Indigenous population. First Nations communities have high rates of chronic illness, such as respiratory problems, heart disease, and diabetes, diseases associated with poverty and exclusion. Systemic inequality, racism, and discrimination in accessing health care in Australia are also well documented.
Vaccination rates for Indigenous communities are lagging behind the rate of the total population in every state and territory in Australia except Victoria. Media have reported that First Nations people who cannot access online vaccine bookings are being turned away. Authorities should ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be vaccinated, regardless of their access to the internet
Despite Australia’s initial success in containing the spread of Covid-19 including among Indigenous communities, in mid-August an outbreak occurred in a remote part of western NSW, an area with a high Indigenous population, only 8 percent of whom were fully vaccinated.
The local Aboriginal medical service in the affected region told the NSW health minister that they were desperate for more staff and vaccine doses. The minister later admitted that western NSW was not sufficiently prepared for a Covid-19 outbreak.
First Nations elders urgently requested more nurses to administer vaccines, more resources for housing and isolation units and well-being checks, and more face masks. Although western NSW has received more vaccines and resources in response, the outbreak there has grown to more than 100 confirmed Covid-19 cases, with the majority of cases affecting Aboriginal people. At one stage, 40 percent of the cases were Aboriginal children and adults between ages 10 and 19, who are largely unvaccinated.
Prisoners and detainees in Australia are also at greater risk from the pandemic. The NSW prison system reported increasing cases of Covid-19, with six recorded since August 11. Prisoners are typically at heightened risk of Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” difficulties in providing adequate sanitation and hygiene, a higher rate of underlying medical conditions than the general populations, and inadequate health care.
The lack of rapid Covid-19 testing at detention facilities increases the risk of unnecessary exposure. NSW authorities waited three days to receive the results for a prisoner who was tested for Covid-19 during intake on August 7. The man spent several hours in the prison’s cells before being released on bail. He then travelled elsewhere in the state before learning his test came back positive. Inmates who had been exposed to the man have had negative tests, but staff who had contact with him were in isolation and awaiting test results
Correctional services across Australia should ensure that rapid Covid-19 testing is made available to limit unnecessary risk for prisoners and staff. Correctional services should also ensure that prisoners are instructed about hand hygiene, are able to maintain physical distance, and that facilities’ ventilation systems are adequate.
During the week of August 16, four men at a prison in Sydney tested positive for Covid-19, including two who were sent to Sydney from a regional correctional center. The prison workers’ union called for an urgent further round of on-site vaccinations for prison staff to protect them from Covid-19. Staff who had missed an initial opportunity to be vaccinated at work were struggling to access vaccines, particularly in regional areas, the union told Human Rights Watch.
While prisoners in Australia have been included in priority vaccine rollouts, the available data on the number of prisoners fully vaccinated is limited. All state and territory governments in Australia should urgently gather and regularly publish data on prisoner vaccinations, Human Rights Watch said.
Australian prison authorities should carry out frequent voluntary testing of inmates and release prisoners who pose a low security risk to decrease prison populations. Health threats to the prison population also have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people. As the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service notes, “One in every four people jailed by NSW authorities is Aboriginal. Systemic discrimination and over-policing means that Aboriginal people are grossly over-represented in prisons. The last thing we want to see is Aboriginal people dying in custody due to Covid-19.”
“Australia needs to learn from the devastating experiences of other countries where vulnerable populations have been hit hard by Covid-19,” McNeill said. “State and territory governments across Australia should act urgently to protect people at risk who face barriers to obtain prevention and care.”