COVID isolation concerns as Western NSW town of Enngonia grapples with outbreak

Peter Shillingsworth has returned negative test after negative test, but he's still stuck at home by himself. (ABC Western Plains: Olivia Ralph)

A frustrated Bourke Shire resident who recently received his ninth negative COVID test says he hopes he catches the virus just to get a glimpse of the end of a long period in isolation.

Peter Shillingsworth and his family live in Enngonia's Clara Hart Village, where a quarter of the shire's 80-plus infections have been confirmed.

Mr Shillingsworth has been deemed a close contact of six consecutive, overlapping cases, meaning he must stay in isolation for another fortnight on top of the month he's already done.

"It's not a good thing to wish for, but I really do wish that my COVID results come back positive," he wrote on Facebook. 

"It may not be the best thing for me, but it's the only way to get out of isolation-quarantine.

Bruce Shillingsworth Jr is doing all he can to see that people in isolation – like his cousin, Peter – are being cared for. (ABC Western Plains: Olivia Ralph)

Grassroots response to 'failure'

The community is also in mourning since recording its first COVID death — that of a respected elder who was a member of Mr Shillingsworth's family.

"There are a lot of people that have been sent away, down to Dubbo hospital," Mr Shillingsworth said.

Another three members of the Shillingsworth family remain in hospital.

Volunteers are filling gaps in the supply of food and essentials to remote communities in lockdown. (ABC Western Plains: Olivia Ralph)

Residents of the Clara Hart village are also concerned that a lack of access to food and other essentials may be leaving them further at risk.

Peter's cousin, Bruce Shillingsworth Jr, started one of several volunteer efforts to get donated food and supplies into vulnerable communities across the region.

"We've got local police up here that are giving people fines for breach of COVID rules and regulations and it's just from travelling from their residence to the shop to get essentials for their mob," Bruce said.

"Government has failed our Indigenous communities out in the Western NSW region.

The Clara Hart Village outbreak has forced many residents into extended isolation. (ABC Western Plains: Lucy Thackray)

Struggle must unite, not divide

The swiftness with which the regional lockdown was announced caught the region off guard.

Maranguka Community Hub executive director Alistair Ferguson said a local emergency management response had to be drawn up and coordinated from scratch.

"I'm the first to admit we were building the airplane mid-flight," he said.

"We're doing quite well now to break into that process and apply our cultural authority, but also – equally importantly – to establish those platforms to allow people to be heard."

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What is heard often from Indigenous leaders is concern about a top-down approach to problem-solving in their communities. 

For Bruce, a perceived lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness from the authorities tasked with coordinating the COVID response have exacerbated underlying issues resulting from poverty and financial hardship.

"We know the impact of changes of legislation and policy in regard to policing in our communities, the impact of giving our mob fines," he said. 

"It's not our expectation for government to solve these issues — it's that they need to work with us, through us, to be able to address them, otherwise we're going to start to see other issues arise."

The biggest worry for local authorities is COVID-19 spreading further in vulnerable communities.

It is hoped that centralising the process and protocols of food and resource delivery using Maranguka Community Hub as the single-entry point will address the needs of Enngonia and allay some fears.

"It's always been the case of the struggle bringing us together," Mr Ferguson said.

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