Northern Territory Police Commissioner Jamie Chalkner has warned that hard lockdowns in the communities of Binjari and Rockhole, both on the outskirts of Katherine, may have a serious effect on the mental health of residents.
This comes after Chief Minister Michael Gunner ordered lockdowns for the two communities on Saturday night following the detection of nine new COVID-19 cases in Binjari, a community of around 220 people 18 kilometres southwest of Katherine.
Residents must stay at home and can only leave for medical reasons or if there is an emergency. Widespread overcrowding, however, may be an issue.
“We’re conscious of the fact that this can have some impacts on people’s mental health as well as their general well being,” Police Commissioner Chalker told NT News.
Food and essential services have been provided to the two communities, and a Rapid Assessment Team is on the ground assisting with testing and vaccinations.
“Know that we are on the ground—we will be supporting you,” Chalkner said.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2018-19, almost one in five Indigenous Australians lived in overcrowded dwellings (18 percent), compared to 5 percent of non-Indigenous Australians. Although this percentage had decreased from 27 percent in 2004, it still meant an estimated 145,340 Indigenous Australians were living in overcrowded dwellings in 2018-19.
In addition, the more remote an area, the higher the proportion of Indigenous Australians living in overcrowded dwellings (26 percent in remote areas and 51 percent in “very remote” areas), compared to 8 and 22 percent in non-remote areas.
On Nov. 17, Malarndirri McCarthy, Northern Territory (NT) senator, told ABC that overcrowding in Indigenous communities was a “massive problem.”
She pointed to NT’s second cluster of infections, which saw nine of McCarthy’s direct family members infected, including her sister, who flew from Katherine to Robinson River, unknowingly bringing COVID-19 with her.
The 30-year-old stayed in three or four houses, accruing 20 to 30 close contacts, who all subsequently needed to be tested.
McCarthy called on the federal government to build more housing in the region.
“If we could get housing in there right now, I would be pushing that straight away to the federal government and the NT government to work on that, but we obviously need the resources to do so,” she said.
Of the nine new cases from Binjari, four are women and five men—their vaccination status is unknown. Among them is a 78-year-old woman who was experiencing symptoms and has been transported to Darwin Hospital.
The other eight cases are all being cared for in the Centre for National Resilience on the outskirts of Darwin, NT.
Although there were no new COVID-19 cases reported on Sunday, Minister Gunner was concerned about evidence of mingling between households in Binjari, as well as mingling between Binjari and nearby Rockhole, whose population is around 130.
He expected more cases to be detected in both communities—which motivated the chief minister to impose the hard lockdowns.
“Yes, these are strong measures, but the threat to lives is extreme,” Gunner told reporters on Sunday.