Tourists are often referred to as the life blood of small rural communities – pumping cash around an economy and creating jobs. When Covid 19 struck however, the small South West town of Walpole wanted to take advantage of their natural isolation to protect their ageing community.
‘Walpole has a small Bush Nursing Post’ says local resident Chris Bellanger ‘and we didn’t want an influx of out-of-towners putting strain on local resources. Early on locals felt fear, and anger towards strangers and tourists didn’t help because some were flouting the stay-at-home rules - doing what tourists do ….fishing, crabbing etc.’
In a matter of days however, the focus of the community turned to the more positive task of helping neighbours. Local farmers began killing their own meat and sharing it with family. They also began talking about ‘going back to the old days’ and wondered what they could do to get health regulations changed so they could be more self sufficient.
Almost immediately, social groups began filling gaps in regional hospitals by sewing scrubs, caps and masks. ‘The government were not recommending the use of home made masks, but it gave us a sense of purpose and was an important moral booster’ said Chris.
When a tanker driver failed to pick up 600 litres of milk, it wasn’t poured down the drain. The owners cranked up an old separator and made cream and butter. ‘The most frustrating thing about this’ said Chris, rolling her eyes expressively, ‘is that health regulations prevent farmers from sharing their produce. Here we are in a state of emergency and by law farmers cannot provide meat or dairy to friends and neighbours. It is so limiting and completely undermines the principles of community resilience’.
The manager of the local IGA led the way in rapidly adapting signage, free home deliveries and online shopping. ‘The manager showed amazing empathy and didn’t once mention profit or loss!’ The Shire of Denmark also collaborated with local businesses and individuals to launch a program of online activities and it didn’t take long before many older residents who were not IT savvy, regretted not up-skilling earlier.
‘Aged care workers worked well beyond their paid hours and ‘broke a number of rules’ to offer emotional and physical support to non Silver Chain clients’ said Chris ‘but to be honest, it was the younger people who had most difficulty adapting – it seems like some were ill prepared to spend a lot of time with their kids’.
Many older people enjoyed staying at home and some took the opportunity to give the local Op Shop a makeover. ‘Around five volunteers spent over 300 hours transforming the shop. They negotiated free dumping (of excess stock) with the Shire, set up a means of recycling cotton for local mechanics, created a Facebook page and celebrated with a hugely successful re-opening. To say I was chuffed would be a grand understatement’ beamed Chris.
Regional borders closed on 4th April and this had a big impact on Walpole because their nearest town, Denmark, was across the border in the Great Southern region. ‘This could potentially have caused a lot of problems’ said Chris ‘but the full closure only lasted one day. After that the police would either man the road block during the day or just carry out random spot checks. This was probably more effective because there were reports of many people trying to use back roads’.
By 9th April people had adapted well but some faced major challenges. Two Sri Lankan chefs on working visas were not supported by Job Keeper/ Seeker packages. ‘These families have been warmly embraced by the community’ said Chris ‘what was their future with no money and no means to return to their own country?’ Chris suggested a fundraising effort to support the chefs, and Walpole CRC opened an account for donations. Rent was reduced for these people and anonymous donations have helped them through the lockdown.
Not everything was perfect however – in a random act of selfishness the community garden was raided of all its produce. ‘All gone’ said Chris ‘even unripe pumpkins!’. By the end of April local real estate agents reported significant drop in prices of up to $100,000 for older houses and by May, they had made so many sales that they actively pursued listings. Also pursuing customers was the local medical practice who for the first time ever, advertised its services. ‘It seems like there is a distinct absence of coughs and colds as a result of social distancing and good hygiene. Let’s hope more money goes into education for preventable illness in the future’ said Chris.
‘Overall’ said Chris ‘Walpole feels like it has not only dodged a bullet but that we have survived and thrived as a community. We were forced to go back to basics and there seems to be a new appreciation for the wisdom of older people. We are now COOL!’
‘There is an air of optimism for the future, with discussions centred around the need for local produce and food security. Getting rid of red tape to create new business is seen as a major barrier. We also recognise the loss of old skills such as butchering that did well in the past but became over regulated. People want to buy local product direct from farmers but this means defying the usual onerous health regulations. There’s a disconnect between the people who knew how to grow product and understanding of marketing/distribution networks. We’ve got a long way to go’ said Chris.
When asked to identify the biggest stumbling block to recovery, Chris was passionate in her response ‘top of my list is the insecure electricity supply. There were several outages in April and May and the community are interested in a stand-alone power grid. A few community members said they would instigate talks but we are a tiny community and that won’t be easy. Outsiders always say Walpole is a great place to live, but you couldn’t live AND work here – we need to change that’.
Like most country towns, the residents hold an underlying concern that Covid 19 will return. “We are happy with the government response but everyone knows community compliance is the thing that got us through the first wave” said Chris ‘I’d like to see the government prepare for its return during this lull period by:
- upskilling people in the use of IT.
- Setting up a Q&A call centre that can deal with any enquiries/ pass people on to the right department. When you have a specific question and don’t know who to ask, it is frustrating!.
- Reviewing the role of police as enforcers of health regulations – they are not trained to do this. We all respect the local police and it’s not easy to enforce one-size-fits-all regulations without putting a few noses out of joint. If you want community buy-in there needs be a review carried out so that, if Covid returns, people understand what they need to do, why and when.
- Getting rid of red tape - communities can be resilient only to the extent that the law allows them. Farmers should be allowed to legally share meat and dairy in times of crisis.
- Banning the term ‘social distancing’ and renaming it as ‘physical distancing’.
‘In a future pandemic’ says Chris ‘I would be inclined to set up my own social circle of trusted people who are not socializing or shopping outside that group and are well versed in correct hygiene. That is basically what we did here and it worked’.