Communication concerns

ONE day after the World Health Organisation announced that the novel coronavirus had reached pandemic levels, the Mallee, like the rest of the world is struggling to make sense of the future.

As the world grapples to understand how this novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has managed to bring nations to their knees and throw the global economy into chaos, Australian's are waking up every morning to more bad news.

While those of us in regional Australia generally feel safer and more secure than our city-dwelling cousins, for many, the very definition of 'isolation' has taken on a whole new meaning.

As I spoke to organisations and business owners throughout regional Victoria this week, it became clear that the number one threat to our way of life was fear of the unknown.

And more specifically, exasperation at their places of employment and relevant authorities for their lack of communication.

"It's definitely escalated wildly over the past weekend, night and day - doctors and key staff met to talk about our procedures," Swan Hill Medical Group practice manager Ange Duncan said.

"From our perspective the media has definitely blown it out…people are concerned…they are calling us with a sniffle and wanting to be tested."

When asked about the preparedness of the Swan Hill medical community should there be a breakout she replied: "We are struggling with PPE (personal protective equipment), we don't have any gowns so the government instructions for the protection of GPs …we can't meet. We just don't have the protective equipment."

A spokesperson for the Victorian Minister for Health said the government was working to ensure supplies of PPE were available as the virus continues to spread.

"We continue to work with the sector and Commonwealth Government to identify important equipment and consumables and establish supply chains - we are also working on assisting local producers to ramp up local production," he said.

"If necessary, we stand ready to receive stock from Canberra and distribute on a needs basis."

When asked about the potential for dedicated screening facilities for the Mallee, the spokesman was non-committal.

"The Commonwealth has announced a hundred testing facilities across the country, no doubt they'll have something nearby," the spokesman said.

Concerns extend beyond local medical organisations, with a local teacher, who did not want to be named expressed uncertainty about the school's coronavirus policy.

"We (the staff) talk about it every day," they said.

"But no, none of the administrators have told us what's going to happen if, God forbid, one of us gets it. It's all a bit creepy."

That same evening as I stood behind a woman at the Woolworths checkout buying 58, 1kg packets of white sugar, the cashier remarked that she'd never seen anything like it.

After the woman left the store I questioned the cashier about what it's like having front-row seats to the apocalypse. With her gaze still fixed, wide-eyed at the exit she began:

"More like the front-line…if anyone is going to catch this blasted thing it'll be us," she said.

"I pondered what it would be like serving so many hundreds of customers in a shift with nothing but a litre of hand sanitiser between you and a potential carrier.…just do the math, it'll be doctors, nurses and supermarket workers."

When I asked what protocols they had in place should coronavirus spread to Swan Hill to protect staff she said:

"It's just all business as usual. I don't think they know what to do with us…and if they did they haven't told us anything. But I'll tell you one thing, I won't be coming in to work if it goes that far."

This sentiment appears to be almost as virulent as the as the coronavirus itself. So too is the rumour mill.

This week, Mackillop College was the first local school to post on their Facebook page a list of precautions to take in line with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

Immediately rumours began spreading that the college had staff or students with the coronavirus.

Principal Michelle Haeusler responded yesterday.

"I've heard several rumours this week about our school and have had to field countless calls," she said.

"We have had one teacher who has a friend who was on a flight that had a confirmed case of the virus.

"He called me to say he had seen his friend and I asked him to stay home while his friend is tested. We are just taking extreme precautions."

The teacher has not been to the school. At the time of print, there were no cases of coronavirus suspected at the school.

As individuals, it is in our nature to be deeply inquisitive and extremely skeptical. As journalists, we chase every lead to try to separate the truth from the noise.

As we enter another period of global uncertainty, it's important to remember the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first inauguration:

"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Through drought, depression, flood and plagues, the Mallee has always been at its best when people pull together and watch each others back.

As we look forward to the future, with all of its potential pitfalls and question marks, it's important to remember we are all in this together.

Our very isolation and our ability to pull through hard times has been tested for generations and we will - with a little wisdom, communication and compassion — pull through this one as well.

Local businesses and community organisations are encouraged to visit: www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/coronavirus — for advice on how to formulate discussions with staff and associates.