Hal Swerissen

COVID restrictions are painful, but they have worked. The National Cabinet has now agreed to a staged lifting of restrictions. New rules will be put in place in three stages, with stage 3 scheduled for July. But what will the ‘new normal’ look like for Daylesford and Hepburn?

In the middle of March, the number of COVID-19 cases was doubling every two days. If that had continued, we would have had around 10,000 cases a day in Victoria by the middle of April, the health system would have been overwhelmed. Deaths could have gone up to 100 a day – doubling the normal death rate.

Everyone could see what was happening in Italy, Europe and then the US. No-one wanted that in Australia

Dramatic action was required and supported. Efforts to test, contact and isolate people with the virus backed up with social distancing have been spectacularly successful in the short term. We now have one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the world.

So far there have only been two confirmed cases in the Hepburn Shire.

But the virus has had a huge impact on local social and economic life.

Apart from essential activities, we have all been restricted to staying at home for more than a month. Children are learning at home, parents are working remotely. Many have become unemployed.

Recreation, cultural and sporting activities have come to a halt. Eating at restaurants is a distant memory.

The district has more older people and more people living alone than the average. Their risks of isolation and loneliness have gone up sharply.

The economic impact has been severe. The hospitality, recreation, arts and sports have been decimated. Nearly 20 percent of the district’s workforce is employed in hospitality and many of these people are now unemployed or under employed. Many businesses are closed, at least temporarily.

The number of people supported by the local Good Grub Club have gone up from 20 to around 300 and growing.

The massive levels of government support that have been put in place will help to support people, but uncertainty and anxiety about the future is high.

The immediate success in ‘flattening the curve’ will now see some restrictions lifted in the near future. School children will begin to return to classrooms, tourism, recreation, sport and entertainment will restart. Workers will start going back to offices, shops and factories. People will go out again.

Stopping the second wave

But there is a real risk that there could be a second wave of infections when restrictions are lifted. As we have seen, clusters can occur in individual schools, workplaces, hospitals and residential care facilities. In small rural towns like Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, whole communities could be affected. If cases cannot be contained, widespread restrictions will have to be reintroduced.

To stop the chance of a ‘second wave’, some restrictions will need to stay in place. This will become the ‘new normal’ until there is an effective treatment or vaccine and there is no certainty that will occur in the near future – if at all.

What will the new normal look like?

Some things are certain. Testing, tracing and isolation for people who are infected will become the first line of defence to isolate clusters and stop the spread of COVID-19. If that doesn’t work wider restrictions (‘lock downs’) will be the backstop against the uncontrolled  spread of infection.

People with symptoms and those who have had contact with people who are infected will have to continue to isolate themselves. We will all have to go on washing our hands, watch what we touch and avoid physical contact with others outside the family and very close friends.

Some social distancing restrictions and infection control measures will have to stay in place indefinitely. There will be limits on the number of people in shopping, recreational, cultural and entertainment venues. There will be ongoing restrictions on the size and type of social gatherings, including weddings, funerals and parties for some time.

International travel and large crowds are not likely any time soon. Handwashing, sanitizers, cleaning and staying at home when sick will continue. Masks may yet become a fashion item.

The digital and distributed world of online personal services (including health and social care), shopping and food services seems certain to continuing growing. COVIDsafe is just one sign of the times.

Remote working and telecommuting are likely to become part of everyday working life for many people. Start times and breaks are likely to be staggered. New ways of blending virtual and face to face meetings, consultation, supervision and training will probably emerge. Physical spaces in offices and other workplaces are likely to be rearranged. And there might be less demand for these spaces.

Outdoor activities – bushwalking, swimming, sport – are likely to be more popular. Gardening and growing your own food are already on the increase. It’s a good time to run a nursery!

New rules will need to be developed

Organisations like local shops, businesses, accommodation services, sporting organisations, festival committees, churches, community organisations and health and community service organisations will have to put in place new rules to prevent infections. The exact details are still unclear, but the Hepburn Shire is already providing information and support. More will be needed as the rules become clearer.

Restrictions on international travel might see more domestic tourism, once domestic travel restrictions ease. That could be good for local economic activity in the Daylesford district. But increased local tourism could also bring greater risks of COVID-19 transmission. It will be important to build community confidence that these risks can be managed. Information and community engagement will be needed.

Sport will return but with much smaller crowds and more virtual attendance. Local sporting clubs will have to put in place new rules to prevent infection. They will need information and support.

So will music, theatre, religious and cultural organisations. Virtual and physical attendance are likely to be blended. New ways of putting on local festivals and events that combine online and smaller group activities will have to be thought through. Drive-ins may make a come-back!

Support for vulnerable people

More ongoing support than usual will have to be provided for people who are vulnerable, particularly those who have underlying health conditions. We will need better ways of using technology to include those who are more at risk into social, recreational and cultural activities. Organisations like the Daylesford Neighbourhood Centre and the Good Grub Club are already taking action.

We will also have to make sure people on tighter budgets don’t have to work to make ends meet when they are sick, particularly if they are employed casually. There will need to be greater levels of security and support for casual work. That will be a particular challenge for hospitality and accommodation businesses.

Community discussion and engagement will be important

Australia accepted dramatic, unheard of restrictions in the middle of a world crisis. Some would like us to bounce back with little fundamental change. But that is unlikely to work.

Nothing is certain, but major change is likely to be needed for an extended period. There may be broader lessons as we reflect on what matters, what doesn’t and how it is that we have a pandemic at all.

In the middle of a worldwide crisis we accepted the need for dramatic restrictions. It will be much more difficult to just impose a ‘new normal’ . Federal, State and local governments will have to engage the community. The ‘new normal’ will have to be discussed, debated and agreed and accepted by residents, businesses, schools, community groups and workers if it is to work.

Hal Swerissen is emeritus professor of public health at La Trobe University and a Board member of the Daylesford District Community News Association Inc