I am pleased to speak on this matter of public importance submitted by the member for Albert Park. First of all, I would also like to thank my community, the Shepparton district, for the amazing work, compliance and change in behaviour that they had to undergo like so many Victorians to achieve this outcome that has been a remarkable one in comparison to what has occurred in so many other places and is still occurring given that COVID-19 is in fact on a continuum rising in many other countries in the world as we speak.
It is very easy for us to in some ways start to feel a bit safer and be a bit more complacent. We have done a marvellous job, but I think we also need to be incredibly vigilant as we go forward. We see Beijing now in another wave of COVID. It has not gone away. The virus is out there. It is alive and well, and it is always looking for a host. I think we need to be wary of that but still congratulate ourselves on the great job that we have done. Just in relation to the health system, congratulations to all of those health workers who were able to just be ready. Luckily they were not called on, most of them, to do anything like the things we saw on television, things that were happening in Italy and other countries in the world, just horrendous decision-making that had to be made and numbers that were unbelievable. New York, I remember seeing a Foreign Correspondent program on what was happening in New York, and there is no doubt that in disadvantaged communities the impact where you have a poor health system is truly devastating, and that is what the United States is facing at the moment with a health system that does not give people access to the services that they need.
At Goulburn Valley Health in Shepparton a lot of work had to be done to get ready for what could have been an overwhelming number of patients that might have arrived. You will all have heard me talk about the stage 1 redevelopment that is taking place. The government were able to support a massive push to just get that whole development finished, and the new emergency department was set aside as an additional intensive care unit should it be needed. So many steps were taken and many things put in place and people ready to go. Fortunately in my community there have been 12 cases overall and one death. That has been a pretty remarkable result. Terrible for the family who lost a family member who had returned from an overseas trip, and no doubt very stressful for families of those who were ill. Most of the cases in our area were people who had returned from overseas prior to the hotel isolation being put in place.
I well remember the first briefing we got here in Parliament with the chief health officer, Brett Sutton, and the minister up in the Federation Room and just the information slowly coming out of China about what was happening. I remember him saying this could be a pandemic, it could be, and questions being asked about what a pandemic is, what does that mean. The second briefing was in the same place at a much more serious time when it was becoming clear that things were getting out of hand and that cases were appearing in other places in the world and indeed here.
It did not take long before every day we were seeing more and more news of what was happening—the closure of the borders to China. I also well remember all my staff and myself standing around watching a press conference when the Premier warned Victorians of what could be coming and feeling a chill quite frankly about what was ahead of us and what could be ahead of us. Thereafter at a federal level we saw remarkable leadership pulling together to deal with it, and quite frankly we saw the same at the local level. In a community I have to say that has been a very traditional conservative community, many places I went people would say to me, ‘The Prime Minister’s doing a great job, and so is that Dan Andrews, and I don’t really like him’.
It was a very interesting show of leadership where people stepped up and stepped in and did what was needed. I think that was very reassuring to people. The national cabinet then coming together and bringing together all the state leaders in that environment was also a really strong sign of leadership and gave the country reassurance. People felt much more confident that things would be under control, that there was a consistency across the country in terms of what was happening.
I have reflected often since that time about how while things may seem pretty ordinary at times in the political world, there is no doubt that when there is a crisis people do have the capacity to step up and look after communities. I think there are a lot of people to be congratulated for showing the leadership that they did at many levels. At a local government level I think it is very fair to say that many of our local government organisations, and the City of Greater Shepparton also, stepped in very early to come up with COVID plans to put in place a whole range of supports for businesses. They kept Meals on Wheels going and kept a range of services that they provide directly going. They still were able to facilitate face-to-face appointments for maternal and child health nurses with mothers.
I also recall Anzac Day, a day when so many people were really quite distressed that they could not get together and honour that day in the way they normally do. I know in my street we came out just before 6 o’clock and people lit candles and we played the ceremony from Canberra and were able to listen to the last post and an address. People up and down the street had their candles just sitting out the front of their house—a very moving moment. We could not be together but nevertheless people were together.
In all this isolation and separation that we have had to do, there has been a remarkable coming together and a sense of community. It is very hard to in a sense put your finger on what that means. Just a few weeks ago I did a walk up and down the streets of Nathalia and Numurkah, just to put my head in the door and say hello to some of the businesspeople there, and their sense of isolation is really very great. There is a feeling out there that is really quite sad to see in many ways. They are making the best of it, the best they can in circumstances that are really very awful—obviously not many customers coming in, businesses really suffering, so many people having lost jobs and that overwhelming sense of what is happening, where are we going? The introduction of JobKeeper, JobSeeker and a lot of other economic stimulus that we have now seen rollout again has I think given people a level of confidence that there is a way forward and that we just have to aim in a certain direction and hopefully do it together to achieve these sorts of things.
One of the concerns I do have is that for many people their mental health is particularly important and needs to be thought about and not put aside at a time like this. I am particularly concerned about people who are in vulnerable groups and people who are more aged, who will be afraid of leaving home even though things are looking better.
I would also just like to take the last minute to thank everyone who works in my electorate office, because it has been an extraordinary time for my staff. They had to close the office. They all had to go home to work and yet they fielded all the calls, and there were many calls and many emails, so many people with questions—people distressed, confused, all sorts of things. In what was a difficult time for them, when they had to look after their own families and their own wellbeing, they did a remarkable job. I would like to thank each and every one of them for pulling together, supporting me and supporting our community at a time when they were really in demand.
I think in regional areas we were often very glad that we did not live in multistorey apartment blocks in cities, because most of us had a backyard or were able to know that we could grow some vegetables if we had to. While people were starting to knit and look for sourdough recipes on the internet, all of my staff were working very hard. In my house we had three people working from home, and in some ways it was very bonding, in others we cannot wait to get back to the office. It is I think important that we find a way to re-establish ourselves in our communities and join together to be that connected community again.