Living Across Borders – Dareton and Toomelah Aboriginal Communities in the COVID-19 Pandemic

They’re at opposite ends of NSW, but the communities of Dareton and Toomelah have one thing in common – living and working across states during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Dareton is a small town in far south-west NSW, in a pocket also bordered by Victoria and South Australia.

Its closest large centre is Mildura in Victoria, which has a hospital, supermarkets, doctors and other essential services.

Many also need to travel further afield into South Australia for specialist medical care.

The situation’s similar for the Aboriginal community of Toomelah in far north inland NSW.

The closest centre with supermarkets, doctors and a hospital is Goondawindi, 25 kilometres away in Queensland.

And with that state closing its borders at midnight Wednesday 25 March in a bid to halt COVID-19 crossing the state, it leaves Toomelah in a serious situation.

“We’re not exactly sure how the border closure’s going to affect us,” said Rex Werribone, CEO of the Toomelah Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC).

“We do know that although locals will be given access for essential services and won’t have to self-isolate after crossing the border, we don’t know how often they can cross or what the time limits will be.”

And it affects passage into NSW too. Rex lives in Goondawindi and drives the half hour to Toomelah each day.

“As I have a Queensland address and car registration, I’ll have to carry a letter from my employer, the LALC, saying I need to make the crossing twice a day for work purposes only.”

It adds more layers of complexity for a remote community hard hit with unemployment and overcrowded housing.

“The Toomelah LALC Board has had emergency meetings over the Queensland border closure and on developing an action plan if COVID-19 enters the community,” Rex said.

“We’re organising clear emergency support service contacts, access to food and medical supplies and importantly, a temporary isolation space for anyone being tested or diagnosed with the coronavirus.”

Dareton has similar issues.

In a remote community with housing issues, how can people self-isolate or be quarantined?

Dareton Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Pam Handy said she’s handed out information flyers, visited families in the LALC’s 46-home community and is working with peak Aboriginal Health organisations like NACCHO and the AHMRC about how families can stay safe.

“If COVID-19 enters this community, God help us all,” she said.

“Our reserve is large, but the houses aren’t. We can’t police people’s entry and exit. Aboriginal people are constantly visiting family in Dareton from towns like Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke and Broken Hill. All we can do is educate our people about social distancing and hand-washing.”

She’s also handed out care boxes, with the help of other local women.

“We’ve put together boxes because the supermarket is being drained and the prices are going up. Each household will receive things like flour, butter, sugar, tea, coffee, milk and some other basics to last them for a little while. The food insecurity out here is dire,” she said.

Like Toomelah, the Dareton LALC Board is also discussing isolation options if any community members contract the virus.

And as they work day by day to keep their communities educated, fed and safe, both Pam Handy and Rex Werribone wait for word on more COVID-19 restrictions and how they’ll implement them, in two of the most vulnerable communities of all