COVID-19 program set up in wake of tower lockdowns scrapped

Key points

  • At the Richmond housing estate, the high-risk accommodation program was credited with helping to achieve almost 100 per cent COVID-19 vaccination of the five housing towers by November last year.
  • It is estimated that around 300 people have been employed by the program, including those in their first job since moving to Australia, who are now facing an uncertain future.

A program set up after the 2020 public housing tower lockdowns to boost COVID-19 vaccination and provide practical assistance to some of Victoria’s most vulnerable communities will be scrapped at the end of this month, in a move advocates say comes at the worst possible time.

Victorian Healthcare Association chief executive Tom Symondson said the project had uncovered huge unmet demand in public housing, caravan parks, rooming houses and other “high risk” places, by helping people access health services that many didn’t know existed.

Muluka Bushre (right) says without help from the high-risk accommodation program she would have been unable to isolate for weeks. And the relationship she developed with wellbeing coordinator Setra Sheik has kept her family connected with vital health services.Credit:Jason South

In some cases, workers at 24 Victorian community health services involved in the “High-Risk Accommodation Response” program have also been helping people to pay bills and access aged care, or home maintenance help.

It coincides with the state government dismantling its central pandemic bureaucracy.

Caroline Springs mother-of-three Muluka Bushre credits the program for allowing her family to stay in home isolation for almost six weeks in September last year, as the Delta outbreak took off in Melbourne, and members of the family progressively fell sick.

Setra Sheik, a wellbeing coordinator with IPC Health, noticed Bushre’s name when she was referred to the service and correctly guessed they might share the same Ethiopian heritage, and Amharic language.

She was able to arrange for food, including Halal meat, to be delivered to the family, when growing COVID-19 cases were causing major delays to online food deliveries.

Without that help, Bushre said there was “no way” she would have been able to stay at home: “I would have had to go out shopping [to feed my] kids”.

Sheik also helped arrange for the utility and rent bills to be paid, as the family wasn’t able to earn any income while in home quarantine. And later, she was able to get dental referrals for Bushre’s teenage children.

While workers say these dental and other services will still exist once they go, their clients won’t necessarily be able to find or navigate them.

At the Richmond housing estate, the high-risk accommodation program was credited with helping to achieve almost 100 per cent COVID-19 vaccination of the five housing towers by November last year.

A grassroots approach saw information delivered through baked potato evenings, youth nights with slushies and takeaway, playgroups, and Zumba classes. Sometimes vaccinations were discussed or offered on the spot, other times they weren’t.

Nuraini Mahamud, who works at North Richmond Community Health, worries that if the program is dismantled and then needed again, it will take months to re-establish the trust that had been built with the community over almost two years.

In an example of how versatile the program became, the community development worker said she arranged to get a rangehood fixed within a day for a mother who had been unable to cook in her own home for six months.

Symondson said he had received feedback from the Victorian government that it was focused on COVID-19 recovery, but argues the program has discovered a critical link between vulnerable communities and essential health services, and should be retained indefinitely.

With thousands of COVID-19 cases being reported each day and a growing flu outbreak, he said it was “not the right time to cut a program that helps people stay well and out of our stretched hospital system”.

The Victorian government declined to comment on how much the program had cost.

A spokesperson for the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing said the government was “committed to keeping Victorians living in high-risk settings safe during the COVID-19 pandemic” and highlighted a number of ongoing commitments, including temporary accommodation for people with complex needs with COVID-19.

Symondson estimates that around 300 people have been employed by the program, including those in their first job since moving to Australia, who are now facing an uncertain future, learning after the state budget last month that funding would not be continued.

“Community health services will obviously do everything that they can, but to find roles for dozens of people isn’t something that we can do … which is heart-wrenching but reality.”

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