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Keeping safe and well: Community control success stories at Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service

Reducing the COVID-19 risk to community members, especially vulnerable Elders and people with multiple health issues, was a big focus through the pandemic for the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service (WAMS), which also stepped up to address a range of related challenges, including big concerns about food security for the New South Wales community.

This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as sponsored content. It was created in collaboration with the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW, which funded the #OurHealthOurWay series.


Sing along to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”…

We are here with soap and water

to wash our hands

(Everyone) WASH OUR HANDS


We are here with soap and water

to wash our hands

(Everyone) WASH OUR HANDS


We are here with soap and water

Paper- towel-to -dry –them… cause you oughta

We are here with soap and water

to wash our hands

(Everyone) WASH OUR HANDS

This wonderful version of the popular children’s song was just one of the ways the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) dealt with the risk of COVID-19 in its community.

WAMS staff at a local school to educate the students on the importance of hand hygiene during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo supplied.

The song was taught in schools and used in the mobile children’s service as a way of getting one of the initial key messages out about COVID-19 — minimising the spread of infections as much as possible via hand hygiene. The mobile children’s service also distributed care packs for children while getting these messages out.

Christine Corby OAM (photo, right) is the Chief Executive Officer of Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service (WAMS) and is deeply rooted in her community.

She said her service took many approaches to reduce the risk of local people getting COVID-19, especially vulnerable Elders and people with multiple health issues. Spoiler: no one in Walgett has been infected by COVID-19 to date, thankfully, and everyone very much hopes it will stay that way.

Walgett is situated in Gamilaraay country in northern New South Wales, near the junctions of the Barwon and Namoi rivers, almost 700 kilometres from Sydney. Just over 2,000 people live in Walgett — and 43 per cent of residents are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to the 2016 census. It’s relatively isolated — 186 kilometres from the nearest big town of Narrabri and 279 kilometres from Dubbo.

While this distance helped minimise potential COVID infections and continues to do so, it has also proved problematic.

Addressing food security

There was a fire at the Walgett IGA supermarket before the pandemic, complicating supply issues for locals, as well as a severe drought and concerns with domestic water supplies.

As Mrs Corby noted, a more than 200 kilometre round trip to buy essentials — including toilet paper! — is not ideal at the best of times and was certainly troublesome in the middle of a pandemic.

That meant helping to ensure people had food and other essentials was a critical service offered by WAMS during the worst stages of the pandemic locally.

“There were real issues with social distancing with the IGA as it was located where the St Vinnie’s used to be, after the fire in June 2019. Staff offered to deliver food to members of the community as we did not have public transport at the time,” Mrs Corby said.

As she explained:

One of the additional problems for us is that even if you travelled to places like Dubbo to buy supplies, three hours away, they would be out of everything too.

We had no options like you do in a large city town where you can drive somewhere else to look for other stock.

At one stage the local IGA was selling single rolls of toilet paper, because stock was so low. That was impossible for people on low incomes or with big families. I know of one family with five children who had a colleague send them a 20 pack of toilet paper to help them through.

All those little things contributed to hysteria, to anger, frustration and anxiety with some people. Without a doubt I would have felt the same way if I was in that same situation. I was one of the lucky ones who could drive to the larger towns.”

Getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to Walgett was not easy but was a priority in the early days of the pandemic.

“We made sure we had people gowned up and wearing masks, taking temperatures and asking all the COVID questions before they came into WAMS,” Mrs Corby said. “We weren’t taking any chances.”

Ensuring medicines were available to WAMS clients was also critical.

“The local pharmacy is fairly small; and it was only possible to have two or three people in there at a time. Lines were forming outside the pharmacy and the people were becoming agitated, so it made sense for us to deliver medications,” she said.

“We have our own pharmacy in-house here. There were clients needing scripts, so we had staff out twice a day delivering scripts out to people. We also had care packs going out to community with information in them about COVID.”

Items from a care package distributed to community members during the pandemic.

Living with emergencies

Mrs Corby said the people of Walgett and other nearby towns are used to attending community emergency management meetings for floods and fires, so COVID-19 information sessions were a natural way to get word out.

“When I sit back and look at all the things we did; to manage information and the community’s needs — it’s an awful lot,” she said.

So many things had to happen. We set up a static COVID clinic and a mobile one too. We had to do special training for the testing.

We bought special shields to be installed in our transport cars. We had to stop doing transport until we could get them organised, so we could keep moving people around, especially the long-distance trips.

Our service is open to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, so we support the whole community.”

As the COVID situation eased, Mrs Corby said she finally realised how much work had gone into protecting the community.

“By the time Christmas came around we were exhausted,” she said. “Then when it seemed like things were ramping up again (with the end of year outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches) I thought ‘no, not again!’ The community don’t realise how much went into all this, and that’s fine, we don’t expect them to.

“The whole situation took a real toll on the community. Social distancing, not being able to hug people and all that, that was really hard. Everyone did their bit to keep us all safe.

“Our community is used to living with emergencies. We’ve had so many floods. With COVID, we all pitched in.”

WAMS staff pack up care packages to go out to community

Walgett continues to try and maintain its COVID-19-free status, aided now by rapid testing, including for clinicians coming into the community to provide health services.

“It has to be done,” Mrs Corby said. “It’s the unknown. I’ve never been a gambler at the best of times. I’d rather play it safe.”

“I think a lot of people didn’t think it would come to us and that was difficult to overcome,” she said. “Some people may see some of the measures as ridiculous, a lot of us bush people don’t think anything (like COVID-19) will touch us. But I can tell you, we had a lot of sleepless nights.”

“Being near the border (with Queensland) there was definitely some anxiety around grey nomads travelling around and waiting to cross borders,” she said. “I heard of some other towns writing down number plates of people coming in and out of town. A lot of people were nervous. It was terrible.

“But things are much better now. The IGA even reopened in November last year.”

Celebrating 35 years of care

Mrs Corby said 2021 has brought with it hope and celebration as WAMS marked the milestone of 35 years of providing health and other services to the local community.

“Having been a continuously-operating WAMS for 35 years is a massive achievement — survival is something to celebrate,” Mrs Corby said.

WAMS hosted a Community Day to celebrate at the football oval on Thursday 15 April 2021. It would normally do more for such a milestone, “but we can’t, because of COVID-19”, she says.

Goonimoo – Early Childhood entertainment included children painting their own cookies along with many other activities. Photo by George Williams

The service also celebrated its growth, with the opening of a $6 million expansion.

From left: NSW Regional Health Minister Mark Coulton, WAMS CEO Christine Corby and WAMS Chairperson Bill Kennedy. Photo supplied

And if the expansion and 35 years in operation wasn’t enough to celebrate, WAMS and Mrs Corby both won Walgett Shire Council awards recently.

“WAMS won the Walgett Business of the Year Award, and I received the Lifetime Achievement Award,” she said.  “We feel lucky to be recognised for what we do. It’s nice to be recognised that we’re offering a professional service for the Shire.”

Mrs Corby said the year ahead would be busy for WAMS, moving into the new building and having to get settled into the ‘new normal’ with COVID-19.

“I’m also really looking forward to spending time in our new Community Garden,” she said.

“I hope and pray that everything goes well for everybody, that we can manage and live with COVID. And I’m really hoping that we don’t have any unwell people or people passing away here as a result of it.”

Walgett’s flourishing community garden. Photos by George Williams


This article was written by Rebecca Thorpe and edited by Marie McInerney, on behalf of Croakey Professional Services. It was sponsored by the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW to share strengths and successes of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations in NSW.

Croakey Professional Services help generate funds to sustain our public interest journalism activities, and also aim to provide a useful service to our readers. To find out more about the range of services on offer, see here.

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