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Lessons from an investigation into the Victorian pandemic response

Introduction by Croakey: Victoria’s second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected the most vulnerable members of its population, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic said the “aggressive suppression strategy” for the pandemic had been comprehensive and relatively successful due to the partnership between government and the community.

But in 47 recommendations in the 500-page report, the committee highlights the negative impact on disadvantaged and marginalised groups.

The findings have wider resonance, given global concerns about the impact of COVID and pandemic policies upon groups already experiencing disadvantage and exclusion. This NITV report details punitive treatment of homeless people during the recent Perth lockdown, for example.

In the article below, journalist Linda Doherty unravels some of the inquiry’s key findings and recommendations.


Linda Doherty writes:

Frontline workers in health, care, emergency services, education and retail have been lauded for their “invaluable contribution” in halting the spread of COVID-19 in Victoria by Lizzie Blandthorn, the chair of the parliamentary committee.

“The Committee has found that the Victorian Government’s response to managing the virus and the consequences of the pandemic has been comprehensive,” Blandthorn wrote in the foreword to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee report on the Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

“It has been relatively successful due to the crucial partnership between government and the community.”

Yet the same report has found that demand on Victorian community services increased significantly during the second wave of the pandemic as tough lockdown restrictions were implemented and exacerbated “historic and continued underfunding” of the sector.

This pressure contributed to financial strain, workforce shortages and gaps across the community services sector, with a key report recommendation for the Department of Health and Human Services to work with the community service sector to identify existing and future workforce shortages to create “attractive” jobs in the recovery phase of the pandemic.

The report found a wide range of groups were “disproportionally affected” in the second wave of the pandemic from July to the end of October – the homeless, low socioeconomic suburbs and towns, insecure workers, Aboriginal people, multicultural communities, women and young people, including school students.

Across many indicators the pandemic dealt a double whammy to vulnerable communities, even in how COVID-19 fines were levied. The most disadvantaged local government areas received double the number of COVID-19 fines per capita than councils with the highest level of SES advantage.

Not-for-profit community health service, cohealth, welcomed the acknowledgement of the impact on disadvantaged people and said there were opportunities to apply the lessons of the pandemic to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable communities.

“Community health services played a key role in responding to the needs of marginalised people during COVID-19, and we will again be central to the rollout of vaccinations,” cohealth Chief Executive Nicole Bartholomeusz said in a statement.

“The people we work with are often struggling just to get through each day – finding food, keeping a roof over their head, managing chronic health conditions.

“We have seen the benefits of employing community members to be part of the COVID response, and there is opportunity to replicate that model in the vaccination program.”

Key findings

The complex governance arrangements for managing the pandemic came under scrutiny in the report, with a schemozzle of “multiple lines of accountability and responsibility across different agencies at all levels”.

A state of emergency was required to provide the legal framework to respond to the pandemic, including maintaining the Victorian Government’s hotel quarantine arrangements and the power to detain people on public health grounds.

The report recommends that the Government clearly define and make public the roles and responsibilities of officials during any state of emergency or disaster.

In other key recommendations, the report said Victoria should change its contract tracing benchmark from 48 hours notification of a positive COVID-19 result to 24 hours, in line with the Chief Scientist’s recommendation last November, and develop a long-term mental health support program to help adults and children in the recovery phase.

By December 2020 Victoria had conducted 3.7 million COVID-19 tests or 555 tests per 1,000 population, which was the highest proportion by any state or territory in Australia, according to the report. Revised modelling had shown that had restrictions not been in place at the height of the pandemic there would have been 18,500 infections each day.

Aged care and health workforce

Victoria’s aged care residents accounted for 79 percent of the state’s pandemic deaths and 10 percent of the total cases – 648 deaths and 1962 cases.

Healthcare workers in aged care were particularly vulnerable, with 1,632 positive cases recorded and staff shortages that posed “a risk to effective care”. The report noted additional government support had been provided to the sector but said “greater support will be necessary in the future”, particularly for the mental health of both residents and staff.

“Healthcare workers in Victoria have played a critical role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as at 30 November 2020, infections among healthcare workers have made up 18 percent of all of the cases recorded in Victoria. Sixty-nine per cent of these were most likely acquired in the workplace,” the report said.

The establishment of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre had improved coordination but the pandemic restrictions had “negatively impacted the mental health of many Victorians”.

“The mental health support provided by the Victorian Government has been welcomed by the sector, however significant long-term support will be necessary,” the report said.

Housing and the homeless

Demand for emergency accommodation soared during the pandemic lockdown. Almost 12,000 households were assisted with accommodation in hotels and private rentals – including 4,000 people sleeping rough from the estimated daily homeless population of 25,000 people.

Despite these numbers, the homeless community has so far largely escaped COVID-19, with just seven Victorians identified as homeless testing positive from July to September 2020.

The lack of safe and accessible housing for women escaping family violence was made worse, particularly for migrant women who were unable to access government support due to their visa status. Victorian crime statistics reveal a 7.5 percent increase in family violence in the year to September 2020.

The Victorian Government has extended rental tenancy protections until March 28 this year. Consumer Affairs Victoria has more than 28,000 rent reduction agreements registered, accounting for 4.6 percent of the total number of household renters in the state.

Aboriginal-led success

Low infection rates in Aboriginal people – compared with infection rates for Indigenous people internationally – have been attributed to the “specialised work of Aboriginal controlled community organisations (ACCHOs).”

“Significant spread of COVID-19 in the Victorian Aboriginal community was successfully prevented,” the report said.

The report notes that demand for ACCHO services are expected to increase and has recommended the Government develop in partnership with Aboriginal organisations a COVID-19 disaster management plan and a recovery plan.

“The demand for Aboriginal-led services increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to continue to increase post-pandemic,” the report said.

Digital divide in education

The report’s findings on school students’ education progress again highlight inequities.

One-quarter of Victorian principals reported that the majority of students made less than expected progress in Term 2, 2020, when most were learning remotely from home and estimate that 20 percent of students will require support now and in the future to catch up.

The digital divide was evident among low-income students, Aboriginal students and those with special needs, with 11 percent of students having to borrow computers from schools.

Half of Victoria’s Year 12 students applied for special entry to university due to the impacts of remote learning during the pandemic. The international student market in higher education collapsed in Victoria, and around the country, and the report said international students are not expected to return to Victoria until 2022.

“Disruptions caused by remote and flexible learning also continue to have a significant impact on student mental health and students with a disability,” the report said, noting the Government injected $1.6 billion into a students’ Disability Inclusion Package in November 2020

Unemployment and jobs

Hospitality, arts and recreation industries have been the hardest hit in the past year but the report said there had been declines in payroll jobs above the national average across all 19 sectors measured except for manufacturing, healthcare and social assistance.

“Cohorts that often experience socioeconomic hardship continue to experience a disproportionate share of the economic impacts of the pandemic,” the report said, recommending a future employment strategy for vulnerable groups in the workforce including young people, women working part-time, Aboriginal people and older workers.

Under-employment increased for both full-time and part-time workers, peaking at 60 per cent from March to May 2020. Unemployment for the state was 7.1% in October 2020, up from 6.8% in July. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise to an average of 7.8% in 2020–21, with a quarterly peak of 8.3% in the December quarter of 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the issues faced by casual and insecure workers who are not entitled to formal leave arrangements,” the report said.

“The five councils that had the most active COVID-19 cases in September were amongst the 10 most disadvantaged councils in Victoria with a higher percentage of insecure workers than most other parts of Victoria.”

In November 2020, the Victorian Government created 500 new jobs across mental health, family violence, health and child protection services.

Justice concerns

By mid-December last year there had been 62 COVID-19 cases in Victoria’s prisons and youth detention facilities. Personal visits were banned at the height of the pandemic restrictions but prisoners were allowed to maintain family connections including the use of iPads for virtual visits with children.

Concerns were raised with the committee regarding powers to isolate children in youth justice facilities in Victoria under recent changes to the Children, Youth and Families Act. The report recommends that the Attorney-General review these changes to legislation where children can be isolated for health or other purposes during the pandemic and report back on this review.

A comprehensive review of the long-term health risks of pandemic restrictions on prisoners and vulnerable adults and children, including mental health, is also recommended.

The parliamentary committee chair, Lizzie Blandthorn, acknowledged the community pain in the report:  “We have sacrificed the things we love. And the sacrifice for many has been immense.”

Linda Doherty is a freelance journalist. Follow on Twitter at @LindaDoherty21.

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