The following opinion piece by Deborah Di Natale, NTCOSS CEO, appeared in the Sunday Territorian on Sunday 29 March, 2020. and highlights the critical role community services will play on the front lines as an essential service during the coronavirus crisis in Australia.

 

Care for Carers: The community sector stepping up in the face of COVID-19

As we’ve come to realise, COVID-19 is taking us to unprecedented territory globally, nationally and locally.

We’re all going to hear the words frontline and essential services a lot over the coming weeks and months. These terms are about to go through a forensic examination of their meaning for our country, our communities and for us individually.

Some frontline services are obvious and come to mind easily – our doctors, our nurses, our paramedics and our police. Essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies are easy to recognise as being necessary too.

After we check off those obvious ones it gets trickier to identify. And that is where community services come in.

One of the most tangible community services is aged care facilities. This service is tangible because it’s visible and most people have an experience of visiting an aged care facility when they’ve visited their grandparents, or a great aunty or a family friend.

But what about those services many people will not have come into contact with? Services like a refuge for survivors of domestic, family and sexual violence, residential services that look after people with a disability, carers who provide a home for children and young people or homelessness services who support people sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.

Community services are often the unseen workers, supporting society’s most vulnerable. They operate quietly, often in the background, to provide critical responses to those most in need. The community sector is agile and comes together in a time of crisis.  We have seen this already with the strengthened collaboration between Central Australian Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, which have come together to share resources and staff in the past weeks to provide significant support to vulnerable people in Central Australia. Together, the community sector is working to develop the capacity of individuals and help families work towards the goal of prevention and reduction of community transmission.

Community services are always essential and in times of crisis they become critical.

Frontline community sector workers and the people they serve are going to be some of the first to be hit by the spread of the virus.  They can’t work from home, it’s very hard to practice social distancing and self-isolation and it has been extremely difficult, or impossible, to access personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves.

Community services have been stretched even before the bushfires and COVID-19. In a recent survey of the community sector, 82 per cent of workers said demand for their services had increased in the past 12 months and 60 per cent said there was an increase in the number of clients their service was unable to support.

We have seen leadership by Chief Minister Gunner and his government as it acted quickly to close borders and stop the spread of the virus to remote communities, and indicated that not-for-profits will not be penalised for making decisions that vary grant funding if it is to protect clients.

These are welcome measures but it will be up to community services to fill in the details.

There are incredibly complex questions being raised for community services.  How will we shelter people who are homeless from the virus?  Where will survivors of domestic, family and sexual violence stay to self-isolate?  What happens if a worker caring for someone with high needs in a residential care setting gets coronavirus and there is temporarily no one else to step in? So many services are formulating their own answers to these questions in a landscape of ever-changing government measures.

We must do everything we can to support those who need it most.

When we look back on our actions and the outcomes during this unprecedented crisis, we will judge ourselves by what we did to help the most vulnerable members of our society. One of the best ways to make sure no one is left behind is to support our community services.

Deborah Di Natale, NTCOSS CEO