How do bushfire victims follow COVID-19 social distancing measures after losing their homes?

04 April 2020

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AUSTRALIA – “We were still reeling just in the normal grief that we were in, so the idea of stocking up on loo paper or extra food just didn’t even cross our minds,” said Exeter resident, Sara Haslinger.

She and her husband lost their home when the Morton fire hit the New South Wales Southern Highlands in early January.

The couple is now living with Ms Haslinger’s mother but are finding it hard to practice social distancing and separate from their community and their family.

“We’re quite sensitive in the way that we have to live now because my mum and my uncle have autoimmune issues,” Ms Haslinger said.

“So we have to work out how to stay isolated from them in a temporary setup.

“This is just a whole other layer added to the loss and the exhaustion of the loss [of our home] to now have to pick yourself up again.”

‘Inadequate water, no sanitation’

Ms Haslinger counts herself lucky when comparing her situation to others, like Lindy Marshall, who is now living in her caravan at Verona, near Cobargo, on the NSW Far South Coast.

Ms Marshall’s home was destroyed when the Cobargo bushfire tore through her district on New Year’s Eve.

She says she now has to live primitively, carting water and drying her clothes on a fence.

“There are still people here living in tents, there are still people with inadequate water, there are still people with no sanitation,” Ms Marshall said.

She says she is also worried about not being able to store enough food if further restrictions are implemented.

“My concern is that if there is some sort of limit put on people in my age group going to the supermarkets,” Ms Marshall said.

“I’m apprehensive about who is going to do my [grocery] shopping.

“If that happens I’ll have to ask [NSW MP] Andrew Constance or [local Federal MP] Mike Kelly to do my shopping.”

Mental health concerns, victims reach breaking point

Ms Marshall said her bushfire recovery had been disrupted by COVID-19 and she was feeling increasingly isolated.

“You can’t recover when you’re completely isolated,” she said.

“My mental health is not good — probably similar to most of the people around here — I have good days and I have bad days.”

Many of the bushfire-affected communities were already grappling with the drought when the bushfires hit and then they experienced floods as well.

Kris Newton from Blue Mountains Bushfire Recovery said coronavirus could be the breaking point for people’s mental health.

“We can’t get people in any close contact at all so that’s really affecting our ability to do our job,” she said.

“If we’re here [social distancing] for the next 12 to 18 months until we have a vaccine, which is possible, we’re going to have a very traumatised community.”

Ms Newton said the response to COVID-19 was diverting efforts and funding away from the communities’ bushfire recovery.

The company tasked with leading the NSW bushfire recovery, Laing O’Rourke, has cancelled community and town hall meetings due to physical distancing restrictions.

It is now hoping to hold webinars to identify people in need of assistance.

Key points:

  • Coronavirus self-isolation is adding to the stress for bushfire victims dealing with the grief and exhaustion of losing their homes
  • Many victims are still living in temporary caravans with inadequate water, no sanitation, and limited storage for food
  • Blue Mountains Bushfire Recovery says people are reaching breaking point
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