Lessons From Remote Australia for the Pandemic Age

Noble Horvath

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau. Georgetown, from the air, looks as if it shouldn’t exist: a scattering of buildings, swallowed up in the […]

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.


Georgetown, from the air, looks as if it shouldn’t exist: a scattering of buildings, swallowed up in the vast landscape of scored earth and trees.

Isolation is simply a fact of life for the town’s 300 or so inhabitants, who live over 200 miles from a major city. Fresh fruit and vegetables arrive once a week, and a hairdresser visits once a month. Survival lies on two pillars, people there explained: a hardy self-reliance and a fierce sense of community.

That assessment seemed especially prescient in the months to come, as isolation came to mean protection from the coronavirus, and staying at home became a duty to halt the outbreak’s spread.

I had traveled to Georgetown last year to understand the challenges of health care away from the coastal hubs that most Australians live in, and to shadow health care workers at the Royal Flying Doctor Service, an aeromedical organization that provides medical care to those in the nation’s hard-to-reach communities.

The service’s planes are known as airborne ambulances of sorts, with patients retrieved and treated on board hours away from the CT scanners of major hospitals. But its fly-in doctors also act as primary care physicians, and their weekly visits are the only chance for many to seek a diagnosis.

“Without this service, you wouldn’t be able to live here,” said Greg Ryan, a cattle farmer who had taken a rare morning off to get some sunspots checked out.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, come back tomorrow and I can have another look,” said Dr. Yvonne Doveren, who had begun that day 240 miles away in the city of Cairns.

It is not an easy existence in places like Georgetown: With remote life come long travel times, harsh weather and scarcity, residents say. And there can be loneliness and the expectation of independence, which means social networks take on an outsize importance. Technology is trying to fill the gap where face-to-face interaction is impossible, from tele-health calls to Facebook groups, much as it has for others in lockdown.

But the distance has played a part in insulating many from the worst of the coronavirus. Away from Australia’s two most populous hubs in New South Wales and Victoria, the rest of the country has had comparatively few cases. Officials moved quickly to cut off Indigenous communities in the Top End from visitors to keep the virus out.

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