The call for Melbourne’s lockdown to be eased is becoming louder as the number of COVID-19 cases has fallen. Leaders within the city’s Greek community are adding their voices to the call that the measures be eased so that businesses can open and a semblance of normality begins to return.

Melbourne has faced one of the toughest of lockdowns in the world. The city and the state have endured the situation but there are signs that patience is wearing thin. An outbreak of COVID-19 in Shepparton has added to concerns that we are in for more of the same for a while longer.

Neos Kosmos has gone out to speak to community leaders to and ask them is a further extension of the lockdown justified. Can we afford not to ease the lockdown?

Georgina Papafotiou. Photo: Supplied

Georgina Papafotiou is a community leader for Brimbank Municipality which had some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 and was the first to be shut down in the second lockdown in Victoria.

From the start of the lockdown as the then-mayor, Ms Papafotiou called for the formation of a Response and Recovery Task Force to help the worst affect municipalities to cope with the lockdown.

“Brimbank has received almost $80million in grants to distribute to people in the community. About 4,000 businesses have received grants of $10,000 each to help them cover their expenses and that is not really enough. It is barely enough for survival,” Ms Papafotiou told Neos Kosmos.

“So many businesses have closed. Marriages have broken down, and mental health issues have increased in the municipality.

“The lockdown restrictions need to be reconsidered now. Businesses need to open with some restrictions in place.”

She said, for example, that merchandising businesses need to set time limits of 15 minutes for customers to get what they need. The time limits for restaurants need to be reviewed so that there is a turnover for the business where a customer occupies a table for an hour to 90 minutes.

“Community leaders know what is going on and extending the lockdown further is not appropriate. The Premier (of Victoria) has been lacking in empathy. He does not understand or see what is going on. He is only looking at statistics and numbers.

“We want the premier to visit our streets to see how many businesses have shut down,” said Ms Papafotiou.

Bill Papastergiadis, the president of the Greek Community of Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

The president of the Greek Community of Melbourne Bill Papastergiadis said in a statement to Neos Kosmos:

Undeniably, our community has suffered significant loss through COVID-19, particularly our most vulnerable being the elderly. No doubt measures were needed to combat the increasing hospitalisation and deaths that were taking place in Victoria a few months ago.

I am not a medical scientist, nor an epidmeologist, hence I am offering a lay person’s perspective on the effect of the measures. Numbers have been used as a means of assessing and implementing the necessary measures since day one.

This of its own raises significant questions about how best to interpret numbers and what that means for protecting an entire community.

We also have conflicting evidence from experts on what the numbers mean and what are the best measures. We are all somewhat confused, and this state of confusion is best illustrated by the apparent backturn by the WHO which stated that ‘lockdowns should not be the main coronavirus defence’.

The continuous decline in cases has made the argument for a lifting of restrictions more compelling. It is obviating the need to analyse and debate the efficacy of who is right and what is the best method of dealing with this virus. In simple terms, the numbers now speak for themselves.

From next week, I would expect that there is some normalisation in terms of commerce and industry.  A blanket ban on all industry as a blunt tool for control of the virus should now be abandoned.

We are social beings by nature and the virus has challenged our capacity to relate and empathise in person. It’s time for a relaxation of measures.

Tina Douva-Stathopoulos, the CEO of Pronia.

Pronia CEO Tina Douva-Stathopoulos said that the welfare organisation had seen an increase in calls for its services when the lockdowns began in March this year.

“The pandemic restrictions imposed in Victoria brought together the factors that often underlie mental health problems. Namely: disruption of employment and people’s regular lives, housing problems, escalated family violence, trauma, disruption of education for younger people and then social dislocation more broadly,” Ms Douva-Stathopoulos told Neos Kosmos.

“Whereas during the first lockdown people where moving about on adrenaline as a response to acute stress for survival, in the second one people are feeling fatigued, burnt out and exhausted. Many people are anxious and confused at the moment, and particularly worried about their finances and their jobs.

Pronia counsellor Anton Anagnostou said that the lockdowns had: “basically intensified everything and people are not able to deal with issues any more. What we are working on right now is to lower the intensity of the stress connected with the isolation and the lockdowns as it is all related to COVID-19 and the effects it has on people’s lives.”

The problems are even magnified for the new migrants who are even more worried about the future.

“At the moment they cannot return to their home country whilst here their job prospects have been damaged and they are losing hope for their future prospects. Most are not able to access the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs because of their visa status and that creates further problems in their current financial situation,” he said.

Another source of concern for Pronia has been the rise in cases of domestic  violence during the lockdowns with over 150 cases reported. These cases include violence on the elderly as well as on women and children.

“Whether Victoria should have gone as far with the stringent restrictions it is not easy to judge, as the rates of infection have come down significantly. At the same time, we have seen the major implications the shutting down of our economy is having in our society, said Ms Douvos-Stathopoulos.

“As Victorians, we want to empower our businesses to open and operate, safely and responsibly. None of us wants to see a third wave happen. We are all cognisant of the disastrous impact that would have and we must all do our part to prevent it from happening. Our government and our community should be enabled to make the right decisions and to function together and safely,” she said.

Neos Kosmos approached the Hellenic Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (HACCI) and was referred to the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI)  of which HACCI is an affliliate.

The CEO of the VCCI,  Paul Guerra, said in a statement to Neos Kosmos that: We need to see as much of the previously announced third step of the roadmap to reopening come into effect as soon as possible.

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been speaking to the State Government regularly to ensure it has insights and information from business to make informed decisions on protecting community risk, but also safeguarding our economic future. Member feedback has been consistently clear that we are ready to live with this virus and operate in a COVID-safe way. Experts say this is necessary prior to a coronavirus vaccine being ready.

We cannot stay locked up forever, nor does any of us want to see a third wave of this virus. We must empower every Victorian business to open and operate safely and responsibly, and every Victorian must join in our commitment to do the right thing by getting tested when they have symptoms and practice good hygiene.

Every additional day that businesses in Victoria are closed, we slip further behind the rest of the country.

Our valued members in regional Victoria tell us they are ready to enter the last step before COVID Normal with every confidence that they can more widely open their doors in a safe and healthy way.

Regional businesses need certainty on when they can open on a larger scale… We have also raised that businesses need sufficient notice to prepare to welcome back staff and customers, ensure stock is available and COVIDSafe plans are in place.