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Australian aged care workers brave COVID hotstops and loss of income

A nursing worker offers some refreshment to an elderly resident during an outdoor picnic at a nursing home. Source: AAP Image/Isabel Infantes

Is serving Melbourne’s elderly residents in aged-care homes an occupational hazard for those who do that for a living? Do they fear going to work? And how do their own families feel about it all? Many Punjabi-Australian aged care workers have shared their experiences with SBS Punjabi.

On July 27, while Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews announced 532 new cases, a record high for the state, and six new deaths, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said there was a “disturbing” number of new infections linked to Victoria's aged care sector. Today, Premier Andrews announced 384 new cases the death of six more elderly patients of COVID-19. 

The state’s aged-care facilities have clearly emerged as a coronavirus hotspot. Today, Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services recorded 769 active cases of COVID-19 connected with the state’s aged care facilities.

With over 80 deaths, the situation in St Basil's Home for the Aged in Melbourne's northern suburb of Fawkner, drove the state's Health Minister Jenny Mikakos to tears during her daily media conference.


Highlights:

  • Victoria's aged-care homes have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots
  • Employers have barred casual staff from working at multiple aged-care homes to contain the spread
  • Low staff, loss of income and fear play on the minds of workers 

Do these figures present a clear and present danger to Victoria’s aged care workers? Are employers supportive of their staff, should they feel scared of going to work?

SBS Punjabi spoke with some of them and received mixed responses. Barring one, all aged care workers requested for anonymity while speaking their minds.

Sonali * (name changed) works in an aged-care facility in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. This part of the city had been identified for its many hotspots, especially, aged-care homes.

Does she feel concerned today about doing the job that she has done for more than half a decade?

“If you are taking all the necessary precautions, the occupational hazard of being an aged-care worker is just about the same as any other professional who goes out to work. We have been given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), in-house sanitation has increased, so I am not afraid about going to work every day,” she says.

She adds that this fear gets eliminated from the mind of healthcare workers when this career is chosen.

“During a pandemic, if people like us feel scared and shun our duty, what can you expect of others,” she asks.

aged care during covid
AAP Iamge/Isabel Infantes.

Sonali’s employer hasn’t given any special training to their staff to combat the coronavirus outbreak at these hotspots. But she says they were given a lowdown on using and disposing of PPE.

“We wear a mask, a face shield, gloves, and a gown every day,” she says.

If going to work in a declared hotspot doesn't play on their minds, do their families try to dissuade aged care workers from doing so?

Anita* (name changed) says that healthcare workers train their families to think of those under their care as an extension of their family.

“However, there are days we feel the need to take sick leave for reasons right or wrong. Earlier we could easily take sick leave but since the COVID-19 outbreak began, our bosses have informally asked us to swap our shifts with colleagues if we are unwell on a day instead of taking sick leave. The reason is that we are now quite understaffed,” she reveals.

This points towards the revelation made in April in which a “super spreader” worker with mild flu-like symptoms continued going to work at a Sydney aged-care facility, which resulted in tragic outcomes that have since become coronavirus statistics.

Usually, the casual staff at aged-care homes work at more than one facility, thus providing them with a pool of extra workers, in case permanent staff is unavailable. But with the surge in coronavirus cases in aged-care homes, all staff has since been limited to one facility only.

While this has created a staff crunch at most facilities, it has also cut the income of workers considerably as they are unable to get extra shifts from other facilities.

Kuldeep Kaur, known for her gidha (Punjabi folk dance) in Melbourne, has a day job in two of Melbourne’s aged-care homes.

Addressing the issue around the current staff crunch in Melbourne’s aged-care facilities, Ms Kaur says that it all comes down to who your employer is.

“My employer has given clear instructions to everyone to choose one facility to work in. We have to spend more time sanitising touchpoints like door handles, keypads, common areas because work has increased while workers have decreased. But we realise this is in everyone’s interest,” she views.

Regarding calling in sick, Ms Kaur says her employer has insisted that anyone who feels even mildly unwell should not come to work.

“In fact, we have been instructed to report if we see anyone hiding flu-like symptoms on campus. We are free to take sick leave,” she adds.

“This loss of income is negligible compared with what others have lost,” Ms Kaur signs off.

Listen to the podcast in Punjabi by clicking on the player inside the picture at the top of the page.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. 

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. 

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus 

Listen to SBS Punjabi Monday to Friday at 9 pm. Follow us on Facebook.

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