The recent heatwave in communities impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks demonstrates the NT Government's need to address rising heat levels in the Territory, according to an NT doctor and researcher.
Alice Springs based specialist physician and senior researcher in heat and health at the Australian National University, Dr Simon Quily, said the recent heatwave in the Katherine region poses an extra challenge to containing the spread of the virus.
The communities of Katherine, Binjari and Rockhole are all currently in lockdown as they work to halt a COVID-19 outbreak, and are all experiencing heatwave conditions driving temperatures above 40C several days in a row.
Dr Quilty said the heat disproportionately impacts vulnerable Aboriginal people, many of whom live in overcrowded, poorly insulated housing.
"The houses are terribly insulated. And so they need lots of air conditioning and the cost of air conditioning in very poorly insulated houses is many fold higher," he said.
"Aboriginal people buy power through power cards. And so when the money on the card runs out, the power switches off. Because they spend so much money on electricity, it eats into their meager welfare payments, and they disconnect all the time."
He said that this drives people into even more overcrowded houses and results in the spread of illness, as is seen during flu season.
"When the temperature reaches 49 degrees in Tennant Creek, you get a wave of disconnections, people's air conditioners all switch off and then they may go to their family's house to shelter from extreme weather.
"So that's why you see in places like Darwin in the influenza season, you see the polar opposite of down south. We have the most cases of influenza right now (during the hottest part of the year).
"The housing crisis, of course, any kind of large social hiccup like climate change or a pandemic - first they're going to affect those most impoverished."
Dr Quilty said heat also has a detrimental impact on people's health, especially those with underlying health problems.
"The patterns of presentations (in hospitals) in really hot weather changed dramatically, and it's very predictable," he said.
"The biggest vulnerability is age, the older you are the more susceptible. So you're roughly five times more likely to die on a very hot day, according to early findings of my research, than on a cold day if you're over the age of 50. But there's a whole lot of other conditions as well."
He said it was time the NT Government formed policies aimed at combating rising heat levels and their impacts on the health of Territorians.
"We could have a much broader policy on, for instance, workforce safety in hot weather and cooler spaces for vulnerable patients.
"There's lots that could be done, but nothing has been done. We're living in a policy void in the Northern Territory when it comes to heat."
"We should actually be leading the pack. Territorians don't have to suffer from heat associated mortality and morbidity if we're smart about it."
The Katherine Times asked Chief Minister Michael Gunner at a press conference last week if the heatwave had factored into the planning for Katherine's lockdown, to which he replied: "Not yet."
"It's something we'd be mindful of but we haven't made a decision yet around accommodating for a heatwave."
Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker said on Monday morning that people in the locked down communities of Rockhole and Binjari had been provided with power vouchers and that a "non-disconnect" policy was in place in those communities to ensure people had power to run air conditioning.
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