For many residents of Victor Harbor, a coastal tourist town on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, the horrors of the global COVID-19 pandemic have been contained to TV and smartphone screens.
- The Victor Harbor population is, on average, one of the oldest in the state
- It is therefore potentially more vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak once borders reopen
- One local said the “wonderful cocoon” of the past 18 months was now at its end
The regional town has recorded just eight cases of the deadly virus since the pandemic began — a low number even for SA, which has had less than 1,000 in total — and has largely gone unaffected.
That lack of community transmission has meant the difference between life and death in the town, which has a median age of over 58, making it one of the oldest local government areas in the state.
But with the state government opening borders on November 23, Victor Harbor’s elderly residents are worriedly preparing for an onslaught of coronavirus nearly two years in the making.
Victor Harbor Bowling Club president Darryl Hammat said when the virus began circulating globally in early 2020, the local community was “extremely apprehensive”.
“It was a new thing to most people, some people had lived through previous types of pandemics, like the polio pandemic, but this was new to a lot of people,” Mr Hammat said.
“But then as we’ve gone along, a slight bit of complacency has stepped in, and people have been more relaxed about the COVID situation.”
He said that initial apprehension is now back.
“We’ve lived in this wonderful cocoon for the best part of 18 months,” he said.
The club’s 160 members, aged from their late 60s to late 90s — the oldest of whom is 98 — have mixed feelings about borders opening.
Many of them have relatives and friends they have not been able to see for more than a year, but all of them fall into a more vulnerable category for becoming severely sick if they contract COVID-19.
It is with that knowledge that the majority of Victor Harbor’s adult population is relying on the protection of COVID-19 vaccines.
Community vaccination rate rising
Of 13,395 residents eligible for a vaccine, 94.4 per cent have received at least one shot, and 84.2 per cent have received a second.
That compares favourably to South Australia’s total vaccination rate, which lags behind with 85.6 per cent of residents having received one dose of a COVID vaccine, and 74.7 per cent receiving a second.
City of Victor Harbor Mayor Moira Jenkins said that the high vaccination rate was reassuring for the community’s more vulnerable members.
Mr Hammat said he does not know anyone in his friendship group who has not been double vaccinated.
“I actually know some that are lining up for their booster shot,” he said.
“But it’s still the unknown — we’re all aware that some of us are going to catch COVID, vaccinated or not.”
That reluctant resignation is echoed by the club’s immediate past president, Dale Speck.
“Personally, COVID has been an issue because of family — I haven’t seen my brother [in Melbourne] for 12 months, or any of his family,” Mr Speck said.
“Plus, having family in Adelaide and not being able to travel up there means I haven’t been able to see my daughter, son and grandchildren.”
Despite being “very happy” to be able to see relatives, Mr Speck said he is also hesitant about the border reopening.
“I’m a little bit worried, I think it is a moral or ethical issue,” he said.
“The fact that the government is going to deliberately allow people with COVID into our state and we are going to have deaths from it.
Both he and Mr Hammat said they have been and will continue to be cautious about travelling to Adelaide, as “the worry is always in the back of your mind” about who has been exposed to the virus.
Dr Jenkins said her advice to residents was to follow state health guidelines — get vaccinated, wear masks, and socially distance from people where necessary.
However, Dr Jenkins, who is a psychologist, knows better than most the adverse effects too much isolation can cause to people’s mental health.
“It’s really important for people not to go and isolate themselves, unless of course they need to isolate themselves because of COVID,” she said.
“I would encourage people to still go to their sports clubs, still go to the bowling club, but wear your mask, socially distance, wash your hands.”
Town prepares for influx of visitors
Dr Jenkins said the annual Schoolies Festival, which is going ahead this weekend after being cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, had been causing additional concern to locals.
However, she said the event has been organised well, in that it would keep the teenagers in one area as they celebrated.
“The Schoolies Festival has had a COVID health check from SA Health, and this year SA Health and SA Police have given it the go-ahead.
“We have to remember, it’s been such a tough time for our young people, and if we think about the school leavers graduating this year — they’ve gone through the pinnacle of their school career with COVID.
“I would be letting down my hair and celebrating the end of school if I was that age as well.”
It was not just Schoolies Festival that will see visitors flock to Victor Harbor, but also the annual influx of summer tourists.
“We’ve got Victor as a tourist hotspot in the summer — in December/January, our population goes from 15,000 to 24,000 people,” Mr Speck said.
“How many of those are going to be exposed to COVID in hotspots and then bring it down here?
“It’s going to be a big worry for this community.”
But despite the risk the town’s vulnerable population will face in the upcoming summer months, the locals remain pragmatic about moving into the next phase of the pandemic.
“We’ve got to live in the big wide world … but it’s lovely at Victor Harbor currently where we’ve had this wonderful cocoon around us.
“It’s a little bit sad that it’s going to be opened up.”