Shepparton grinds to a halt with COVID outbreak

Shepparton grinds to a halt with COVID outbreak

08/25/2021

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When Shepparton has faced crises in the past, there has always been a clear and obvious course of action for our close-knit community. When flood waters lapped at our lower-lying housing areas, people filled sandbags. When fires threatened, we picked up hoses or helped evacuate. When drought hit, we organised hay drives.

We now face the challenge of a COVID outbreak and a significant economic disruption, but many of us can’t get out of the house to lend a hand.

Cars line up at a drive-through testing site in Shepparton. Credit:Joe Armao

Close to one-third of Greater Shepparton’s workforce is in isolation, and that means reduced milk and fruit production, fewer trucks to Melbourne carrying our produce to the world, and lower productivity in what is usually a manufacturing powerhouse.

Many people not in the workforce – vulnerable people, retirees, and children – are also locked down, and can’t go out to access food and other necessities.

It is a unique situation. Because Shepparton’s two major secondary schools and several primary schools have been named tier-one exposure sites, thousands of households will be forced to isolate at home for at least two weeks, and those two weeks are lost time we can’t afford.

We have a booming economy brought on by the increased demand for agricultural commodities, the rapid rise in construction activity and our growth as a service centre for a prosperous northern Victoria. That may surprise some still subscribing to the narrative of 10 years ago that the town is dying, and the cannery is going broke – in fact, SPC is powering forward under new ownership but they, like everyone else, are finding it difficult to operate with key staff at home.

The community response to the crisis has been phenomenal. People really care about each other, and times like this see us cling to what may seem an old-world value of civic pride.

A collaboration called GV Cares has set up a service where vaccinated volunteers deliver food, medicines and other necessities to families in isolation. The multicultural communities are engaged, active and caring for the vulnerable. Restaurants are offering free food to those testing positive.

Goulburn Valley Health is doing great work with contact tracing and testing, and this is easier in a connected and willing population such as ours, but they have been given a huge task. A common sentiment around Greater Shepparton is that the Department of Health and Human Services has used a sledgehammer to contain the problem, but their follow-up assistance has been very slow.

We are going to need a lot more help from the Victorian government, particularly next week when those in isolation require their day-13 negative COVID test to rejoin the workforce.

The locked-down Shepparton high street.Credit:Joe Armao

Concern has been expressed about our Indigenous population and potential vulnerabilities, but the leadership in that community has been outstanding. Rumbalara Aboriginal Cooperative has a testing facility up and running, and solid and straight information about vaccination is coming from leaders. The hashtag #ProtectNan is trending, imploring all of us to look after our elders.

One of the issues that we do face is that we were already short on workers, and the current lockdown has only exacerbated this problem. The local agricultural and manufacturing industries have hit the hurdle of a very tight labour market. Our dilemma has been how to fill all the jobs that have become available due to the expansion in recent times. With entire communities now trapped at home due to lockdown, even more workplaces are struggling.

After this, we will need help to recover some lost ground. As I look around at the factories, farms and business centres of the region I see nothing but potential.

You’ve heard the expression “make hay while the sun shines”. There is a lot of hay, and the sun is shining, but no one is here to drive the tractor at the moment. When we get back up and running, hopefully Victoria can come and give us a hand.

Sam Birrell is CEO of the Committee for Greater Shepparton.

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