A short guide to protecting everybody from COVID this winter

COVID ISSUES ALERT

New COVID sub-variants are buffeting Australia, and the Victorian Government is now urging people and workplaces to take extra measures to protect themselves.

It’s even launching a public campaign called ‘Stay Well in Winter’, to encourage mask wearing, booster shots and physical distancing.

This is all part of a broader trend to prioritise personal responsibility and voluntary measures over government-imposed rules and mandates.  

If this shift is to occur successfully, the Victorian Government must take extra care to ensure nobody is left unprotected.

So here are six things for policymakers to consider:

1. How will people without much money afford masks?

Mask wearing is now officially recommended indoors. Previously announced mask mandates also remain in place for public transport, hospitals and aged care facilities. And experts advise disposable N95 masks offer much greater protection then reusable fabric masks.  But what if you can’t afford to buy masks?  Past COVID waves taught us that increased demand, panic buying and price gouging can lead to product shortages. Strategies must be put in place to ensure people on low incomes can easily access masks.

2. How can low-income earners be expected to self-fund COVID testing?

Rapid Antigen Tests are recommended for personal use so people know when they’re infected and can seek treatment and isolate. Some workplaces and venues even make RAT testing a requirement of entry. Despite this, Federal and State schemes to provide free RATs to low-income earners are winding down. This means people will either not leave their homes, not test themselves or make other sacrifices to afford RATs. These scenarios are all undesirable. A mechanism must be created so people on low incomes can continue to access free COVID testing. 

3. Will marginalised groups be adequately supported to receive COVID boosters?  

A high-level public awareness campaign urging people to get their latest COVID booster is admirable. But recent history teaches us that community outreach, engaging with grassroots community organisations and local leaders, and tailored communications efforts are critical to increasing vaccine uptake. This is especially true for disadvantaged, multicultural or geographically isolated communities. The government must continue to support community organisations and local community leaders to play their part in the COVID booster push.

4. Will community organisations miss out on air ventilators?

A new round of government grants has been announced to help businesses buy air ventilators for their shops and offices. That’s great, but what about community spaces, such as: community health facilities, family violence refuges, homelessness support centres, community legal centres, etc? This is especially critical as the people who frequent these settings often live with forms of vulnerability, such as a health condition or disability. The operators of these critical services also require financial assistance to buy ventilators to protect their clients. 

5. How can people get food and other essentials while they isolate?

The Victorian Government has provided food relief and material support throughout the pandemic to people in serious need. Commonly, this is low-income people who are sick or isolating, but who don’t have the money or social network to get shopping delivered. With isolation requirements remaining in place it is crucial that plans are made for the long-term future of these support schemes. What is the government’s long-term plan to ensure people who must isolate can still access the essentials?

With strong strategies in place to address these concerns, all Victorians will be able to take sensible steps to keep safe and enjoy an active winter with their friends, families,  workplaces and communities.

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This piece was originally published as ‘A six step guide to protecting everybody from COVID this winter’. It included a point arguing for the reinstatement of casual worker pandemic leave. We amended the article and headline after National Cabinet made this change.

VCOSS is the peak body for Victoria’s social and community sector, and the state’s premier social advocacy body.

We work towards a Victoria free from poverty and disadvantage, where every person and community experiences genuine wellbeing. Read more.

VCOSS acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country. We pay respect to Elders both past and present, and to emerging leaders. Our offices are located on the sovereign, unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.