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How the illicit drug trade helped the spread of Covid

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‘Building back better’ became a common refrain as NSW emerged from extended lockdown. To make it meaningful, policy responses need to be based on a proper understanding of what has actually happened during the pandemic. That involves acknowledging a truth that virtually dares not speak its name, that the spread of Covid-19 into regional New South Wales was largely a product of the illicit drug trade. Understanding why and how this occurred points in the direction of much needed social policy. 

As mayor of my region during the western NSW outbreak, working closely with the state in ensuring services were delivered, I gained insights into the spread of Covid 19 that are far from apparent in much of the media and public health messaging.

The western NSW outbreak has been significantly defined by race, class and illicit drug abuse. It is no coincidence that these three factors that also help define the face of incarceration, ill health and social disadvantage in western NSW.

Our outbreak started from a drug dealer doing an illegal trip to southwest Sydney for a stash of drugs to sell. The virus jumped first from this ‘patient zero’ into the vulnerable Indigenous community in west Dubbo and quickly spread in all directions and as far west as Wilcannia and Broken Hill. 

Since then, it has infected thousands of people, many living in cramped social housing estates. Many people have been killed, including Indigenous people with underlying health conditions.

Ultimately the Australian Defence Force saved us, getting our vaccination rates in the Orana/Far West from the lowest in the state on 1 August to now well above state average. Modelling shows how drastic our death rates would have been but for lock down and mass vaccination.

An absolute constant has been the role of the out-of-control illicit drug trade in spreading the virus from town to town and crowded house to crowded house. The intransigent non-compliance by segments of the community has been a major source of frustration and ultimately exasperation for the health and policing authorities.


'Treating people with substance addictions as criminals for minor possession matters is fundamentally contrary to health outcomes and common sense.'


I spoke to a fellow western mayor recently who told me his small locked down community was literally being held ransom by an entrenched culture of drug use spreading the virus.

Much the same occurred in Dubbo, while most of the community was locking down, drug seekers and dealers continued to move around plying their trade and feeding their addictions. These difficult truths are a pointer for much needed social policy and investments.

The intergenerational cycles of dysfunction and disadvantage that drive high crime rates and the over representation of Indigenous people in prisons across western NSW played a key role in spreading the virus.

These cycles have not too date been met by an adequate responses. The Dubbo region will next year finally receive funding for a residential rehabilitation and detoxification centre working with a specialist drug court. While hugely welcome it is only the beginning of a meaningful response to long standing social problems that can be overcome with the right investments and policy responses.

To rebuild from this pandemic, and to prepare for the next, which could be far worse, we need social policy incorporating drug harm minimisation principles at every step, in a way that is responsible and acceptable to the community. This must include the criminal law. Treating people with substance addictions as criminals for minor possession matters is fundamentally contrary to health outcomes and common sense.

Urgent investments are needed in housing as the social conditions in many of our western towns are totally unacceptable, which drove the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable. Our public health units also need funding boosts. They worked incredibly hard and quickly during the outbreak, but the resource strain and shortfall was obvious.

Across regional NSW we need drug treatment, Drug Courts, justice reinvestment projects and other policies that recognise the link between ill health, social disadvantage and the operation of the criminal justice system.

While the virus was indiscriminate and opportunistic, it fed on our societal vulnerabilities, and we all wore the consequences. The opportunity presents to build back better using these lessons.


Stephen LawrenceStephen Lawrence is the Mayor of the Dubbo Region and a barrister.

Main image: Blue sky at sunrise, Dubbo, NSW. 

Topic tags: Stephen Lawrence, Dubbo, illicit drug trade, Covid-19



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Existing comments

Almost breathtaking in the honest and brave appraisal of the situation and commendable for proposing controversial solutions. I can't say I agree wholeheartedly (and what would that matter, anyway?) with the assessment or the solutions but am prepared to back "a man with a plan" rather than a call for expressions of interest for an advisory group to discuss a framework for stakeholders to identify parameters for consideration. Sometimes you have to wonder what those who seem afraid to act with urgency and criticize immediacy after the event have to lose. It reminds me of the apartment snap lockdown order in Melbourne; complained about for weeks in its wake for failure to nurture individual special needs but wholly effective in its achievement... here, Mayor Lawrence has stated "Enough!" The cards are on the table for a wider community benefit but undoubtedly some will want to tinker around the edges to massage it to suit themselves. I'm tired of special interest groups meeting to select their uniform style and logo, adjourned until a mission statement and graphics are agreed; failed quora because there's some obscure event elsewhere. I wish the Mayor well and hope his veracity and drive isn't confounded by truth-telling and bureaucracy.

ray | 16 November 2021  

It is good to see politics at the grass roots level in Far Western NSW working so well that the ratepayers actually elect a Mayor, who not just speaks the truth but does something. Refreshingly, he also speaks in English rather than political gobbledygook. Many people from Sydney are moving to Dubbo and other regional centres. Many of them are extremely well qualified. This may well help to revitalise Australian politics.

Edward Fido | 17 November 2021  

Yes, Pru Goward, there is an underclass (not that you didn’t know this). And we even know what colour it is.

Well, underclasses come in several colours but each shade shares the same defining characteristic, the ability to transmit economic ineptness (as a good proxy for various other forms of ineptness) from one generation to the next with a reliability that would make a SARS-COV2 tear out its spikes in envy.

Given that it takes an abrupt shift of perception to dislodge a deeply embedded predilection, the relaxed pace of daily acquaintance with a needle exchange or a paper cup of methadone (the addiction is a medical or harm minimisation issue trope) is unlikely to change anything. Nor is addiction purely a law and order issue because gaol of itself can’t fix a spiritual deficit.

Somehow, the thought of exile appeals. Tell China to forget the hard words exchanged in the past if they let us dump our laggards on the Tibetan plains for, oh, say five years, where they can spend the summers rounding up wild horses and the winters thinking about heat. If they don’t come back exhausted and drug-free with a new view on things, perhaps the thought of more five years’ rounding up wild horses in summer and thinking about heat in winter under the big skies of Tibet might induce them to do something else in Western Sydney or western NSW.

roy chen yee | 18 November 2021  

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