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Pandemic prompts Australia to impose new rules

Healthcare worker advises, ‘Stay at home and don’t lick your shoes.’

Knox Private Hospital in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. (Alyce Collett/YJI)

MELBOURNE – Australia has not escaped being affected by the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world at the moment, and it feels like the country is on a slow march towards an impending shutdown, but we’re not there yet.

Like everywhere else in the world, Australia and Australians have been hit hard by the covid-19 crisis. Thousands here have been infected (more than 5,000 at the time of publication) and life is far from normal for people right across the country.

The federal government has slowly, over the space of a few weeks, imposed restrictions on what citizens can and can’t do.

It started with things like cafes and restaurants having to close their dine-in spaces, then extended to travel bans.

Now, at least in the state of Victoria, there are only four reasons people can legally leave their homes: work/school (but only if it can’t be done from home), exercise, healthcare and buying essential supplies.

It’s not a total shutdown, but the way authorities have gradually expanded the restrictions makes it feel like a full shutdown –like the one seen in Italy – is inevitable.

Shopping centers are now ghost towns. There are nowhere near as many people in major shopping areas as in the past.

While this has made finding a carpark much easier, it also means that walking through the center feels eerie and creepy.

Healthcare workers, like in the rest of the world, are most affected here.

Liv Webster, who works in radiology in a Victorian hospital, said there are a lot of new changes.

“Except from working at home, we have changed almost everything else,” Webster said, explaining that scan protocols, the cleaning schedule, their uniforms and their interaction with patients is all different now.

Work hours are earlier and longer, she said, and no food is allowed in the department.

“Not even a single wrapped bit of chocolate to get me through the 5 p.m. slump,” she said.

It’s not just her work life that has changed a lot. Aspects of her personal life have, too.

“It’s an odd mix because I’ve been busier than ever being in healthcare, but then all my friends and family are the complete opposite,” said Webster.

“So in some ways I get home really stressed and tired but everyone else is raging with energy after being home all day,” she said, “and I feel bad for not taking my time off to videocall/call more but I don’t have the energy.”

Although she is trying not to watch much media at the moment, Webster does believe that the political leaders, both at a state and a federal level, are listening to the medical experts.

“Everyone wants answers and the short answer is medical professionals still don’t know much,” said Webster. “Things can always be done better, but our response was far from poor. We are all making educated guesses at the moment, but more journals are coming out and we are slowly but surely making our way up.”

When asked how she felt about people not obeying social distancing rules, Webster was diplomatic.

“I think it’s important to always not the assume the worst,” she said. “Perhaps they don’t fully understand.”

It’s one thing to say social distancing saves lives, she said, but explaining how it affects their relatives and friends who are at risk requires even more motivation. There is no way to get 100 percent cooperation under any circumstances, she said, but if eight or nine people out of 10 are practicing social distancing, “we are still doing darn well.”

If political leaders could do one thing right now to make life easier for healthcare workers, it would be to get more supplies, said Webster.

“My department is running low on all the important stuff – masks, gowns, hand sanitizer – and I’m sick of it.”

Webster said she knows that there are a lot of factors influencing the supply chain, but hopes that future contingency planning is better.

Besides healthcare workers, early childhood educators are feeling the impact of the pandemic, too.

Since the number of infections started to skyrocket in Australia, there has been a lot of talk about whether – and ultimately when – schools would shut.

Great Ryrie Primary School, a public school in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. (Alyce Collett/YJI)

Although nearly all schools in Australia are now closed or have shifted to online learning, nothing has been mentioned about kindergartens and childcare centers. These remain open, much to the dismay of many who work there.

The crisis is taking a toll on the mental health of the educators, who worry not just about catching the virus, but keeping things as normal as possible for the children.

Meg Stow, an early childhood educator since 2016, said covid-19 changed everything.

“After starting in the industry there has always been this voice inside my head saying, ‘Be careful, don’t get gastro, don’t get conjunctivitis,’ “ she said.

“This is all well and good, because when you get those, you are only off work for a week at the most, and then back into the daily grind of looking after strangers’ kids,” said Stow.

But with covid-19 cases on the rise in Victoria, she said, workers at early childhood centers across the state are scared.

With schools closing all around and service sector workers facing unemployment, Stow said childcare workers don’t know if they are the next to be jobless.

“I don’t go to work to earn money,” said Stow. “My main goal is to teach the future generation. This covid-19 pandemic is taking a toll on not only me, but my whole workplace, staff and children.”

Stow said she’s taking it day by day.

“I don’t see early childhood education centers closing down at any point,” she said, but added that she expects the number of children enrolled to drop sharply. At the center where she works, she said, they’re down to about half their usual numbers.

Beyond economics, there’s a real psychological toll, according to Stow.

“I am not able to explain this situation easily to the children whom I care for and this puts me in a state of mind that I am not doing my job properly,” said Stow. “We are expected to not only care for these children, but also educate them. This virus has all the children worried, lost, anxious and not sure whether they are going to see their friends and teachers the following week.”

Since Stow’s interview, the federal government instituted a new policy of free childcare for parents. It’s too early to tell what impact the change will have on enrollment, but there are aspects to the policy that have left some childcare workers feeling angry, frustrated and undervalued. It’s now free for everyone, not just essential workers, so some early childhood educators are feeling like they are nothing more than just babysitters.

Beyond her work in a hospital radiology department, Webster raised concerns about the information people are consuming in the pandemic.

Infection control information posted on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are wrong 90 percent of the time, Webster said.

“I am also disappointed that in times of crisis, the major media conglomerates can’t put their money-spinning agendas aside to produce well researched, unambiguous factual medical research,” said Webster. “So much of what I have read is twisted in a way so people with even decent health literacy are up in arms.”

A recent story by a news outlet, she said, warned that coronavirus is able to survive on the soles of shoes.

Webster said that kind of coverage exploits people’s fears and makes them unnecessarily paranoid.

“Most viruses can survive on shoes,” she said, explaining that is “the reason as a healthcare worker, I do not wear my work shoes anywhere but work. In other words, stay at home and don’t lick your shoes. It’s not rocket science and not something that should be feared.”

So, as things stand at the moment, a life far from normal is the new normal for everyone here in Australia. No one knows when this will all end, and while some people find these restrictions annoying, no doubt most people are grateful that things here aren’t even worse.

Alyce Collett is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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