Tough times in hard-hit Werribee with people ‘at end of their tether’

Wyndham, on Melbourne's south-west fringe, has topped the list for active cases of coronavirus for much of the pandemic.

One of the fastest-growing local government areas in Australia, the suburb of Werribee and its surrounding areas have taken a harder hit from COVID-19 than almost anywhere else in Victoria.

Suji Sanjeevan manufactures candles in Hoppers Crossing.Credit:Joe Armao

Large clusters of the virus have taken hold there, including in aged care – BaptCare Wyndham Lodge has had 232 cases as of Monday, while Glendale aged care home had more than 80 cases in August – and at independent school Al-Taqwa College, which had 210 infections last month.

While infections have dropped back significantly in recent days, Wyndham still has more active cases – 204 as of Monday – than any other council area in Victoria, something many of its 270,000 residents appear to be feeling acutely.

Werribee GP Joe Garra said he had noticed a spike in anxiety in the community. He is writing more scripts for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, and more referrals to psychologists.

“The general mood is terrible in Werribee … I think people are at the end of their tether really, mentally,” Dr Garra said.

Even when he's waiting for his morning takeaway coffee, Dr Garra said other locals often want to have a chat about the virus while he waits. Most other businesses on the main street – Watton Street – are closed.

“It's just a mess. It's hard, you try to keep people positive, keep people's moods up, but you can't promise them anything.”

Suji Sanjeevan, a former doctor who now manufactures candles for her Hoppers Crossing-based business Light & Glo Designs, has had to cut her team from 10 staff down to just two.

The factory is not allowed to continue during stage four lockdown rules, and most of her warehouse employees were not eligible for JobKeeper as casual workers.

“We're in a commercial estate, there are a lot of businesses out here. Everywhere is empty at the moment,” Dr Sanjeevan said.

“Having those high figures in Wyndham really does cause that nervous energy amongst the population. [People are] very reluctant to head out – this is obviously prior to stage four – everyone's that much more cautious.”

Wyndham mayor Josh Gilligan said insecure work was a major cause for the high case numbers in the area, with employees inadvertently sharing the virus because they couldn't easily work from home or take time off for minor symptoms.

“There is no doubt that that is a prevailing reason,” Cr Gilligan said.

Watton Street, Werribee on Monday.Credit:Joe Armao

“It's so easy and quick to think that because we've got migrant diversity, that perhaps there's a communication issue, I think it's deeper than that. I think it comes back to the economic fault lines.”

Census data shows that the most common industries people work in Wyndham are truck driving (3.6 per cent), hospitals (2.9 per cent), supermarkets (2.8 per cent), child care (2.6 per cent), and computer system design (2.6 per cent).

Wyndham has a younger population compared with the rest of Victoria and Australia, with an average age of 32 at the time of the 2016 census.

About 45 per cent of households speak a language other than English, mostly Punjabi, Hindi or Mandarin. Residents were also more likely to be born overseas, with 10.3 per cent of people born in India, 3.6 per cent in New Zealand and 2.6 per cent in the Philippines.

Wyndham Council has confirmed it will start working with 18 local GP clinics to conduct their own contact tracing in an effort to use local expertise to prevent further outbreaks.

Cr Gilligan said doctors involved in the program would refer patients who tested positive to the council’s environmental health team for contact tracing. Patients will have to give their consent before they are referred for local contact tracing.

Cr Gilligan said the council’s environmental health team been trained by the Health Department to conduct contact tracing.

The new model would also ensure local services, such as food deliveries, could be provided to ensure people comply with quarantine requirements.

Watton Street in Werribee on Monday.Credit:Joe Armao

Tina Reddrop, who owns independent supermarkets in Victoria and NSW, said staff at the Werribee Supa IGA where one staff member tested positive last month had been the worst affected.

“We have employees whose entire family group basically have lost their jobs,” Ms Reddrop said.

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