Omicron exposes our worst and very best

On Christmas night, my wife, son, and I were desperately trying to fly to Brisbane to visit our daughter and son-in-law. Earlier that day, our Wesley Mission family welcomed nearly 500 people from all walks of life to share a picnic in Sydney’s Hyde Park, serving lunch and sharing gifts with many people on the margins. It was amazing.

While we celebrated with others, we waited for the negative COVID test results we needed to cross the border. The texts didn’t come in time, so we had our family Christmas on Boxing Day on FaceTime. This was one of many signs that Omicron was smashing our community.

On December 20, there were 3000 cases in NSW. By Christmas Eve, we had crossed the 6000 mark and just over a week later, on January 1, NSW had more than 40,000 cases, and the numbers have increased exponentially since.

As has every organisation, Wesley Mission has been deeply affected by the rapid growth in COVID-19 infections. So much so that all of the community services and regions that we operate in have been hit significantly.

What has been profoundly moving has been hearing the stories of COVID-free team members stepping up in extraordinary and sacrificial ways.

As CEO, I received a steady stream of incident reports informing me who was unwell, isolating, and which protocols were enacted. Staggeringly, since the beginning of December, around 8 per cent of our 2500-strong workforce have been or are COVID infected, and that number will be significantly higher by the time you read this.

What has been profoundly moving has been hearing the stories of COVID-free team members stepping up in extraordinary and sacrificial ways, filling the gaps, to ensure our clients – many of them the most vulnerable – continue to be served and empowered.

Omicron has affected regional areas in a way that Delta and Alpha never did. Homeless young people in our Coffs Harbour refuge were confirmed cases, which at the time meant that all the staff were close contacts and needed to isolate themselves.

The manager of our homeless services immediately headed north, leaving his young family back in Sydney. Contacting team members as he drove, he finally found someone to join him as a backup. The next day, the backup also became a close contact. Other team members volunteered to return from holidays. Working with young people who do not have a safe family environment they can go home to is already challenging, and offering stability is critical.

Meanwhile, in aged care, our teams were on high alert. An aged-care worker’s worst nightmare is passing on COVID-19 to their residents. Fortunately, aged care is one place you can easily get hold of a rapid antigen test, with access to the national stockpile. And our people test at the beginning of every shift.

Our people project calm and positivity that translates through the visual barrier of gowns, masks and shields.

Again, with so many of their colleagues infected or isolated, teammates put themselves forward for additional shifts. Staff came up with engaging activities for residents needing to isolate themselves in their rooms. Video calls connected residents with loved ones. An Elvis-themed day helped mark a special birthday, although enjoying Jailhouse Rock from isolation took on a certain irony.

It is hot and exhausting work caring for people while wearing full personal protective equipment. And yet our people project calm and positivity that translates through the visual barrier of gowns, masks and shields, and you can feel the selfless compassion they emanate.

For people living with disability, receiving vital services is not optional, whether you have COVID or not. Our support workers face genuine risks to continue providing care. And they still show up because they prioritise the value of empowering people with their daily routines.

There’s a leadership role for a CEO in challenging times – don’t get me wrong. But it is our frontline staff who are making the difference, who are bearers of hope.

I’m grateful that we’re a large charity, and having 2500 employees gives us greater capacity in the crisis we now face. Our teams have developed plans and contingencies for situations such as these. Still, this latest outbreak arrives at the end of almost two years of managing ever-increasing complexity, ambiguity and anxiety. We are being stretched and challenged in ways we have never been before. People are COVID-weary, rules keep changing (mostly understandably so), and each wave and every update brings fresh challenges.

At times like this, the values we have chosen are what to cling to, which anchor us. For Wesley Mission, these are Christlike servant hood, unfailing integrity and courageous commitment, and it’s inspiring to see these values lived out when it counts most.

Rev Stu Cameron is the CEO and Superintendent of Wesley Mission.