Australia

This Perth pharmacist won't see his family for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts

Michael Franciscus has moved out of the family home to protect his wife. Source: Supplied

Michael Franciscus is one of the many frontline health workers making a personal sacrifice to help others. His wife lives with a disability and has chosen to self-isolate, while he remains dedicated to serving his community.

For Perth pharmacist Michael Franciscus, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted both his professional and personal life.

An unprecedented number of customers are filing through the doors of his two pharmacies in the suburb of Subiaco each day.

“We are an essential service … ensuring that people can readily access their medication. If people are in isolation, we're doing deliveries to those people,” he tells SBS News.

“A lot of people are confused about what’s going on at the moment, and we’re there to outline as much of the correct information and give the right advice as possible. It's crucial, considering the misinformation that’s out there.”

Michael is one of the many frontline health workers across Australia who are putting in long hours and risking their own health as the country battles the impact of COVID-19. But for him and his family, the consequences of exposure to the virus are especially acute.

Michael Franciscus is a Perth pharmacist.
Michael won't see his family until the coronavirus epidemic ends.
Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

Michael’s wife, Jocelyn, suffered an injury to her spinal cord during a vehicle accident several years ago and uses a wheelchair. She wants to do everything she can to avoid contracting the virus. 

“My husband, being a pharmacist, has a really high exposure to sick people,” Jocelyn, who works as an occupational therapist, says. 

“Myself being a high-level quadriplegic, I have a lot of difficulty coughing [due to weakened abdominal muscles], I pretty much can’t cough. And I also have about 40 per cent lung capacity.

“Even a normal flu would be really difficult on me, but something on this level, there would be a high chance that I would have to go into ICU and need a respirator.”

Given the high risk and serious consequences of exposure, the couple has made the difficult decision to live separately. 

Jocelyn Franciscus with their daughter.
Jocelyn Franciscus with the couple's daughter.
Supplied

Michael moved out of their family home two weeks ago, while Jocelyn remains with their four-year-old daughter.

“With my wife being such high risk and myself being high exposure, I’m currently living with some friends and then going to be moving into a unit,” Michael said.

“Its really tough. Me and my wife, we are both aware of the situation and come to terms with it. But for [my daughter] … I tried to talk to her over the phone before going to bed the other day, she broke down and I broke down.”

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Jocelyn is supported by her family and a full-time carer.

“It is very difficult explaining [the situation] to a four-year-old. I’m just trying to make it as fun and engaging at home as I possibly can,” she said.

“There have been a lot of tears, we’re getting there day by day. I tell my daughter that 'daddy’s helping other people, he is being really brave'.

“We’re just having to encourage her to think of those things outside of her sphere.”

At-risk Australians

This week, the low number of new cases of COVID-19 in Australia, and in Western Australia in particular, showed early signs that social distancing measures and bans on public gatherings are working to ‘flatten the curve’.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the number of new cases reported each day has dropped from 25–30 per cent to 9 per cent over the past week.

"Whilst we are making progress, and whilst we are now flattening the curve in the first early stages of progress, there's more to do," he said.

But both federal and state governments around the country are approaching Australia’s trajectory with caution, urging Australians not to become complacent.

Michael and his daughter.
Michael and his daughter.

The threat of community transmission and economic shutdowns are both likely to last several weeks or even months, and there have also been criticisms that some of Australia’s most vulnerable people have not been included in the preparations.

“You need look no further than the exclusion of the Disability Support Pension from receivership of the coronavirus supplement payment,” WA Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John said.

“Its absolutely outrageous that people on the DSP and people that receive carer allowance have been excluded from this. If you’re a disabled person, there are all kinds of additional costs - from PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] to not being able to use public transport - that come as you try to keep yourself safe.”

SBS News has contacted Federal Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Stuart Robert for comment.

Senator Steele-John is also calling for a COVID-19 information hotline to be established for people with disability, as well as a special committee to inform the national cabinet.

“There are very specific circumstances that disabled people face when we interact with the health system at the best of times. There are specific steps we need to make to ensure that our health care response is inclusive of everyone,” he said. 

The road ahead

As the nation waits to see how long the coronavirus epidemic will last, Michael is wondering how long it will be until he sees his family again.   

“Not knowing how long this is going to progress for, that’s probably one of the hardest things to deal with,” he says.

“There’s a lot of other health professionals that are taking similar steps to me. Personally, I just keep working, to try and help the health system and the community as best I can.

“And trying to keep in contact with my daughter by phone or FaceTime as best I can. Especially with her being at such a young developmental stage, it’s a really difficult.”

Michael Franciscus
Many families of frontline workers are making sacrifices to deal with coronavirus.
Supplied

Meanwhile, Jocelyn is preparing for weeks and months at home, limited to the house for her own safety but well supported by her family and carer.

“Now that I’m self-isolating, I am very well supported with family and in the lucky position to have a live-in carer. But there are so many people with disabilities that aren’t in that position,” she says.

“I have great fears for my husband, and not just him, any frontline worker. [If things get worse] they have to choose between life and death, who gets to be ventilated, who gets to have an ICU bed?”

“I don’t know what the future holds. We just have to wait it out.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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