The head of the Salvation Army’s employment wing has angered some staff by declaring that the coronavirus was blown up by “hysteria and panic”, and that taking vitamins would reduce their risk of serious illness.
As the Labor Party and welfare groups have called on the government to suspend physical interactions between job centre employees and jobseekers, Dr Graeme White, the national director of the Salvation Army’s public-facing Employment Plus agency, has urged his workers to adopt a “business as usual” approach unless they were required to self-isolate.
“In general, the hysteria and panic that surrounds this virus outbreak substantially exceeds the threat,” he wrote in an email to his staff.
“This is new and blown out of proportion by the media and the hysteria in the community and at the supermarket … I believe that if you are not in a higher risk category and you are keeping up with vitamins and supplements your risk of serious illness is minimal.”
The email was sent to staff on Tuesday, just after Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that Australians could have their lives disrupted by the coronavirus for at least six months as the nation bunkered down to deal with the spread.
Dr White told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that the message was not designed to diminish the severity of the situation, but rather, “to put things in perspective” so that his team could remain focused as they continued to help the most vulnerable members of the community.
This was important, he said, in view of heightened concerns among staff who “like all Australians, are exposed to a mix of accurate information, confronting social media video of shoppers fighting over toilet paper, and social media speculation about COVID-19’s origin”.
But one staff member expressed alarm at the organisation’s approach, which has encouraged workers to continue dealing with clients face-to-face instead of adopting contingency plans such as phone appointments.
“We keep receiving emails saying their prayers and thoughts are with us and the community through this difficult time, however the expectation is to come to work every day and service clients face to face and put ourselves at risk. Not only staff, but the wider community nationwide,” one employee told The Age and Herald.
But Dr White insisted his organisation was taking the matter very seriously in accordance with Federal government advice. Measures adopted by the agency included self-isolation according to departmental guidelines, working from home following exposure to a confirmed case, engaging with job seekers via phone “where feasible” and restrictions on interstate and overseas travel.
Labor’s employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor wrote to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash asking the government to suspend physical interactions between job seekers, job centre providers and Centrelink staff. The Australian Council of Social Service has also also written to Mr Morrison saying that programs such as work-for-the-dole ought to be scrapped as they involve communal activities.
Like those programs, the Salvation Army’s Employment Plus – a government-funded program which provides job seekers with specialised training, work experience, and job opportunities – also requires physical interactions between staff and clients.
This article first appeared in SMH.COM.AU