Bellingen Shire COVID-19 Neighbourhood Care Network

Bellingen Shire Coronavirus Pandemic Response Group members Kerry Pearse, Dr Gull Herzberg and Dean Besley maintaining their social distance
Bellingen Shire Coronavirus Pandemic Response Group members Kerry Pearse, Dr Gull Herzberg and Dean Besley maintaining their social distance

They're hoping it won't even be needed.

"I really hope in three months time we're sitting in the Fed and saying, 'Wasn't that a wasted effort'," Kerry Pearse said.

She's talking about the Bellingen Shire COVID-19 Neighbourhood Care Network, a collection of small mutual aid groups, each covering about 50 households, that she's establishing as part of our local pandemic response.

It's loosely modelled on a similar setup in the UK, and Kerry and her collaborators have recently had a Zoom meeting with Oxford Covid-19 Mutual Aid to learn from their experiences.

"In their shire they lost a bunch of truck drivers [to the virus] and lost capacity to move things around," said Dean Besley.

"So the bus drivers said, 'We'll pick up the food before we do bus runs'. That was the sort of collaboration that happened as a result of their groups."

The idea is that if things go pear-shaped, the networks will swing into action so people can help each other with practical support, connection and resources.

"When they pulled the trigger [in Oxford], they had 2000 volunteers who put their hand up as champions," Dean Besley said.

'Champions' is the term being used for the people who coordinate the small neighbourhood-focused groups.

Oxford is a city of 150,000 and like the rest of the UK, it's now in lockdown, with people only allowed to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities (as infrequently as possible), to attend to medical matters, and to exercise (once a day).

Organisers of the Bellingen Shire COVID-19 Neighbourhood Care Network have set a 'stretch target' of registering 80 per cent of our 6000 households as members.

They stressed the importance of getting everyone aboard as soon as possible so when a trigger event happens - like more severe lockdowns or a cluster of local cases - we'll be ready to respond quickly and efficiently.

Kerry said according to the 2016 census, we have 1620 people living alone and 1266 households that consist of either one or two older people (over 65).

"This isn't only about vulnerable groups, but it's where our thinking started," she said.

The initiative went live on Monday March 23, inviting people to register via https://airtable.com/shrLwdFmfGwX6vBwf

Generally, a neighbourhood group will be one street, a section of a longer road or a rural hamlet, but the boundaries will emerge as people start registering and the 'champions' start identifying themselves.

They'll have various options for communicating with each other: WhatsApp messages, Facebook, phone calls or even the good old-fashioned letterbox drop.

The registration form collects details about what people need or can provide - whether that's delivering shopping, walking a dog or helping the less tech-savvy configure their computers so they can stay connected to family and friends.

It's expected that everyone's needs will change as the pandemic progresses.

"We're all in this together - participants may offer services one day and use them the next," Kerry said.

"It's important to remember that physical distancing does not have to mean social isolation and shut down does not have to mean shut out.

"We are lucky to be living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Let's care for each other and come through this crisis stronger and more connected than ever."

The Neighbourhood Care Network is a initiative of the Bellingen Shire Coronavirus Pandemic Response Group, with start-up and development funded by Bellingen Shire Council.

Other initiatives are the Clinical Action Group, which is operating the local COVID-19 testing clinic, the Business Support and Adaption Action Group, which is organised by the Chambers of Commerce and the Services and Support Action Group, which is being led by the Neighbourhood Centres.

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