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After Hazelwood – a healthier future for the Latrobe Valley

The Victorian state government has announced a $51.2 million package of initiatives aimed at improving people’s health in the Latrobe Valley across a range of areas, including mental health, family violence, chronic disease and Aboriginal health. The government has stated it will ‘work side by side with communities in the Valley to improve the health and wellbeing of current and future generations.’ The package includes:

  • Establishing a Latrobe Valley Health Zone with increased access to early health screening for diseases and illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.
  • Expanding allied health services for people suffering from chronic disease management, supporting telemedicine and providing targeted funding for local Aboriginal communities.
  • Investing in new prevention initiatives to promote healthy behaviours, improve mental health and address family violence from childcare centres to schools to workplaces.

The Latrobe Valley town of Morwell faces a number of challenges, which meant it was disproportionately affected by the Hazelwood Mine Fire. Morwell is less prosperous and healthy than the rest of Victoria, with median household incomes significantly lower than the Victorian average, and a much higher proportion of low-income households than Victoria at large. Morwell also has an ageing population with a higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and the percentage of people who need assistance due to a disability is twice the rate for the rest of Victoria.

Research clearly shows that communities facing disadvantage, like Morwell, have fewer resources, social support, mobility and housing options at their disposal meaning in the face of an emergency, people are less able to prepare for, respond to, and recover from, the hazards and damages intrinsic to a disaster or emergency.

The 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Final Report stated that a number of vulnerable groups in the community were particularly susceptible to the adverse health effects of the smoke and ash, including those with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, pregnant women and unborn children, children and the elderly. In addition to physical effects on residents, the report also acknowledged the psychological impact on the community as a consequence of the mine fire and stated that the fire’s health and social impacts  have further compromised the community’s health and wellbeing.

The VCOSS Submission to the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, its submission to the re-opened 2015 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and subsequent supplementary submission all found that the challenges inherent in entrenched disadvantage are well known to local service providers, with significant service gaps noted in areas including public housing, drug and alcohol services, dental services, accommodation for people with mental health issues, youth services and child protection.

In its  Submission to the 2015 re-opened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, VCOSS reported that Morwell’s entrenched difficulties had been exacerbated since the mine fire and that the community continued to be highly distressed. It stated there is significant fear about the long-term consequences for health, and great uncertainty about the potential effects of exposure to the smoke and ash along with concerns about the availability of adequate healthcare services. The submission also noted that that the Aboriginal population in the Morwell region experiences significantly poorer health, education and employment outcomes than the non-Aboriginal population.

The VCOSS submission found that the mine fire itself had not been the only disruption to the community and health services that seek to support the wellbeing of local residents. Changes to the delivery of human services in Morwell by both the federal and Victorian governments had added more stress and disruption to a system already compromised by the mine fire.

During the Health Improvement Forums held by the Board of Inquiry, VCOSS endorsed the benefits of collaboration and co-design to address the complex social problems faced by the Morwell community. The VCOSS report, Walk alongside: Co-designing social initiatives with people experiencing vulnerabilities, states that working closely with people in the community is one of the best ways to design services and programs that will help them overcome the forms of disadvantage they face. The report outlines co-design principles and practices to help bring people, community workers and the government together to best design the social programs, services and support people need.

The Morwell community has a strong appetite to re-establish a sense of place and pride, including among its residents, businesses, community organisations, schools, local government and industry. The community has suffered from severe social and health disadvantage for many years. Any strategies to improve the health of the community must address the urgent needs of residents as well as the long-term causes of the community’s entrenched disadvantage.

VCOSS stresses the importance of local leadership and decision-making in the Latrobe Valley Health Zone, and other initiatives to engender ownership, utilise local knowledge and insight, and build on existing relationships. Community sector organisations are a trusted conduit for people facing disadvantage and vulnerability, and have essential expertise, capabilities and skills to contribute.

This announcement by the Victorian government presents a unique and significant opportunity to take a new approach that acknowledges Morwell’s past contributions to Victoria, recognises its strengths and challenges, and provides an innovative and collaborative way forward. VCOSS encourages the government to work closely with local residents, communities and community organisations to improve the Morwell community’s health and wellbeing.