Tennant Creek residents struggle with extreme heat during COVID-19 lockdown without working air conditioning

A Tennant Creek woman and public housing resident whose only air conditioner broke the day before the town’s COVID-19 lockdown began has been forced to endure days of temperatures approaching 40C as she waits for it to be fixed.

Key points:

  • Lockdowns in Tennant Creek and Ali Curung have been extended by another 24 hours, until 5pm today
  • One Tennant Creek family is sweltering through lockdown without air conditioning after their only unit broke days ago
  • A heat expert says air conditioning and power failures during lockdown can seriously impact health

“I feel angry, I feel tired and I sleep most of the time even though I’m sweating because I am tired,” Valda Shannon said. 

“I feel abandoned, as if my issue is not a serious issue … I feel like nobody is listening.” 

Lockdowns in Tennant Creek and the remote community of Ali Curung were extended again on Wednesday, until 5pm today.

Northern Territory Acting Chief Minister Nicole Manison said the extension was to give authorities more time to process 423 COVID tests taken from Tennant Creek and 230 from Ali Curung and to drive up low vaccination rates in both communities — with full vaccination coverage at just 74 per cent in Tennant Creek and about 34 per cent in Ali Curung.

For Ms Shannon, a Warlpiri and Warumungu woman, the direction means another day of sweltering conditions.

She said she first reported her broken air conditioner to the NT’s Department of Housing around 8:30am on Friday. 

Since then, she said she has spoken to several housing and welfare workers who have told her she’s “on their list”.

More than four days later, she’s still waiting for a response.

Ms Shannon said her broken air conditioner was blowing hot air and making loud noises.(Supplied: Valda Shannon)

Adding to her concerns is overcrowding. 

As well as living with her son, daughter and two children, Ms Shannon regularly cares for her brother’s children from the house next door. 

“We keep the kids between the two houses and work together to not let them out of the two houses,” she said.

“On days when there’s no clouds and it’s burning hot already, we’re sweating right through our clothes and the fan just blows around hot air.

“That really tires me out.”

Speaking at yesterday’s COVID press conference, NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker said police were aware some residents in lockdown were facing issues related to public housing and air conditioning.

“I’m sure public housing tenants are well aware of the process for them to report repairs and maintenance,” he said.

“We strongly encourage people to do that as soon as the fault presents itself.”

Late on Wednesday, a Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities spokeswoman said the body was aware of the air conditioner fault at Ms Shannon’s home and had scheduled an “urgent maintenance request” to resolve it.

The spokeswoman said the request would be completed within four days.

‘You actually start to cook’: Heat expert

Simon Quilty, an ANU heat and health researcher based in Alice Springs, said some of the homes in remote parts of the NT were so poorly insulated that it could feel “substantially hotter on the inside than the outside”.

“Some of these homes can reach 50C, if not more,” he said. 

He said sweltering inside one of these homes without air conditioning was “incredibly dangerous”.

“Once your core body temperature goes above 42C, you’re in the vicinity of severe heat stroke,”  he said. 

“You actually start to cook from the inside and you’ll die.” 

a rundown house Ms Shannon said her home in Tennant Creek can become unbearably hot.(Supplied: Valda Shannon)

Dr Quilty said NT authorities must consider the extreme risk of air conditioning and power failures during lockdowns in remote communities.

“What I see as the main problem with virus outbreaks in remote communities is not the virus itself, which will affect all humans equally, but the housing baseline which is so appallingly poor,” he said. 

“What we’re seeing at the moment is a coalescence of a global pandemic with extreme heat, climate change and multidimensional poverty.”

Alice Springs, Barkly region mandates see residents mask up

As well as the lockdown extensions, Ms Manison also announced on Wednesday the introduction of a 48-hour mask mandate for Alice Springs and a 24-hour extension of a mask mandate already in place for the Barkly region.

Under the mandates, masks must be worn in indoor public settings at all times, including in shops, cafes and restaurants, in workplaces and on public transport. 

Alice Springs resident Kathy was wearing a mask while shopping in the town’s CBD on Wednesday before she even knew the mask mandate was in effect. 

She admitted that wearing a mask out and about was an inconvenience.

“I’m sick of masks, honestly,” she said.

“You can’t breathe properly, and when you put your glasses down, they fog up as well sometimes.”

A woman wearing a face mask in the Alice Springs CBD. Kathy thinks masks are a good defence against the virus.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

But despite that, Kathy said wearing a mask made her feel safer when out in public, and ultimately it was “better to be safe than sorry”.

“[People] are coming in from communities that have this virus there, and with this new [variant] coming in, you don’t know who’s got it,” she said.

“So I reckon, if you’re in the shopping centres and in town, put your mask on, just wear it.”