First Nations fears grow in Western NSW as one family reports 40 COVID cases

Ngemba woman Catherine Cubby is heartbroken not to be with her family, dozens of whom have contracted coronavirus. (ABC: Olivia Ralph)

Just a month after COVID-19 hit Western NSW, entire families have already been devastated, with one family reporting 40 members infected with the virus.

All three Western New South Wales COVID deaths have been First Nations people, including a man in his 60s from Dubbo, a woman in her 70s from Enngonia, and a man in his 50s from Dubbo.

Ngemba woman Catherine Cubby tested positive for COVID-19 in Bourke last month and said more than 40 members of her family were now infected.

"I'd encourage them to get vaccinated." 

Infected 'from ages two to 72'

The Bourke resident, who had to isolate at home for three weeks, said it was devastating being unable to help sick family members, with five of her relatives requiring hospitalisation.

"My brother was the healthiest one of the lot of us and now he can't walk. He's still struggling to breathe," she said.

Family members infected range from her two-year-old granddaughter to her 72-year-old mother.

"The emotional toll is draining. I've got very good family and friends that have been checking up on me and calling me," she said.

"Sometimes I have a breakdown and let myself cry.

"You think about when you'll reunite with your family again. It's very emotional. I miss my grandchildren. My four-year-old grandson normally sleeps with me every night."

Ms Cubby is urging her community to take COVID seriously.

"Don't blame anyone. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Just stay home," she said.

"Some survive it, some don't." 

'Communication is critical'

Bourke elder Phil Sullivan said the official health messaging locally had missed the mark.

"Communication is the critical part. If we don't get that right — and we haven't got that right — we get the chaos we've got," he said.

The Ngemba leader is confident authorities will have an impact if they work with local leaders that have communities' trust.

"We should have been in front of this [issue)]. We weren't prepared," he said.

"We do that by empowering people in communities. Give them the resources to look after their people."

He said he had been vaccinated, despite initial concerns.

"I was afraid of COVID and getting the shot but the truth, is in the end, if I don't do that I lose my family," he said.

Community-led campaigns

In nearby Brewarrina, vaccination rates are higher partly due to a locally-led health campaign.

"We designed fliers that were relative just to 'Bre' so people could relate to them. You really do need to do it in a way that local community can relate," local business owner Trish Frail said.

Brewarrina business owner Trish Frail. (ABC: Olivia Ralph)

A local committee is coordinating a strategic response to ensure no-one slips through the cracks.

This includes Ms Frail cooking nutritious meals with native ingredients for the community's vulnerable residents, thanks to donations.

"The generosity of the community and all of NSW has been overwhelming. We've raised over $4,000 and made over 100 meals," Ms Frail said.

'We thought COVID was gone'

Local Indigenous leaders want to play a greater role in keeping the town safe.

Brewarrina Local Aboriginal Land Council chair David Kirby said because they are connected to the community they can work with authorities to share important information with residents.

"I think a lot of it is we actually thought this thing was gone. As a community we've got to take responsibility for each individual," Mr Kirby said.

He said they were also working to minimise the impacts of welfare issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Overcrowding is an issue, emotional traumas are developing. We've been immune to [the restrictions of] COVID for the last 18 months," he said. 

"I think moving to that type of health restriction has been a new thing for our side of the community, that's why the messaging is so important."

Tracking Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout (ABC News)

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