The power of partnerships: how one Australian town beat COVID-19

As Australia’s capital cities struggled with ballooning numbers of COVID-19 infections in the first half of 2020, smaller towns faced a different kind of problem. All relied on the support of their respective State or Territory Government — Governments which were focused on the hundreds of thousands of commuters packed onto trains and trams and buses, on the towering skyscrapers filled with workers, and on the metro health infrastructure that would buckle if the number of infections wasn’t contained.

In Australia’s south eastern state of Victoria, the town of Colac—a two hour drive from Melbourne—came to just such a realisation: with the Victorian Government trying to manage so much, who would keep their town safe?

Shane Vicary, chief executive of one of Colac’s largest employers, AKD Softwoods, and other local business leaders, started to question their companies’ preparedness for an outbreak. In doing so, they realised their neighbours and other businesses might have lacked the skills, knowledge and resources to keep their operations and their people safe.

So Shane contacted Colac Area Health chief executive Fiona Brew in early March and asked if she would join him in a health and business response in the form of a community forum. What emerged was Colac’s Community Leadership Group—a community collaboration which drove infection numbers down, kept the town safe, and allowed business leaders and residents to forge new, lasting relationships.

What made the difference in Colac?

There are four key learnings Colac’s Community Leadership Group have taken away from their COVID-19 experience:

1. Complexity & learning

The complexity of COVID-19 and its impact on communities and economies forced responders such as Colac’s Community Leadership Group to be nimble and to learn as they went; after all, none of them had faced anything like COVID-19 before. 

The uncertainty required new ways of working – characterised by experimentation and learning. Many in Colac attribute their success in containing COVID as being, at least in part, due to these new approaches to developing a community response.

“It worked because everyone cared and it was solution based,” said Matt Gibson, director of Spence Construction and one of the members of the Community Leadership Group. “And because we were prepared to challenge the status quo all the time. People higher up in government could learn the value in individual experiences and knowledge. That’s what created the integrity in the group—valuing the contribution of individuals and using the extensive knowledge and expertise of individuals to reach a common goal.”

2. Collaboration

An unprecedented crisis called for unprecedented collaboration across multiple facets of Colac’s community: inter-business collaboration; between businesses and the health department; between the Community Leadership Group and the local media—even between rival media outlets. The local newspaper and radio station were on board and were publishing and broadcasting uniform advice. That consistency in messaging was applied not only across local media, but also across the social media accounts of individual business, the school and the Council. This played a critical role in the Keep Colac Safe campaign.

For Shane, the success of the community-led response was down to collaboration and mutual respect. “Not once did we have a conversation about who had authority, the right process, or who should be in charge,” he said.

3. The power of relationships and trust

Kylie Armstrong is the general manager of operations at dairy food manufacturer Bulla, and one of the early members of Colac’s Community Leadership Group. She said members of the group gelled quickly. “We all had a genuine interest in protecting our people, our community and our businesses.” Kylie explained that trust began to build between members as a result of being open and transparent about strategies for dealing with COVID-19.  “We were open enough to share flowcharts, COVID-safe plans, business continuity plans, and other documentation with interested members of the group and then hosted a Zoom call where 100 local business members jumped on so that we could share our experiences and answer any questions they had.

Trust began to build between members as a result of being open and transparent about strategies for dealing with COVID-19.

Shane said there was not only trust between group members, but trust in the leadership group from the community as well. “There can be suspicion when business leaders come together. But we had community permission  because we had Colac Area Health there, we had the Council there, we had the School leaders there—so it clearly wasn’t about business’s profit. It was about keeping the community safe,” he said.

“The community support has been overwhelming, and the relationships we’ve established have been brilliant and I’d like to see that continue going forward, for our businesses and our community,” Kylie said. “I didn’t know Fiona before this, but we’re planning to have a few champagnes when this is all over.”

4. Thinking systemically, acting locally

After two outbreaks—and at one stage just over 100 active COVID-19 cases—Colac drove the number of infections down. That success was, in large part, due to residents and business owners thinking systemically and acting locally. 

From March to June, the town’s strategy was to Keep Colac Safe. By the time Colac saw its first case of COVID-19 in mid-July, a lot of the messaging around hygiene and safe distancing had already been drummed into the community, and strong relationships established. “When we realised we had COVID-19 in town, we were able to immediately leverage off those existing relationships and share corporate knowledge,” Shane said.

This collaborative and relationship-based approach also worked very effectively to contain a second outbreak in August, where the town was again confronted with a cluster of 39 positive cases.

They also organised social media campaigns in which the messaging wasn’t delivered by health authorities or politicians, but by locals. Shane explains, “We didn’t tell people what to do, we asked them to do what was best to keep Colac safe, to keep their families and their livelihoods safe.” Colac teenagers, a local nurse, a restaurant owner—they all helped to spread the message. They promoted good hygiene and shared personal stories about loved ones who had underlying health conditions. “I’m choosing to stay home for my Poppie and my Pa, who are more vulnerable members of our community,” one young woman said.

These social media campaigns, hosted by multiple organisations, played a significant role in keeping Colac safe. The leadership group leveraged these campaigns to encourage residents to wear masks well before it was made mandatory across Victoria. A fortnight before the rest of Victoria’s population was forced to wear masks—and only two days after Colac’s residents were encouraged to do so—80% of people in the town wore masks in public.

This collaborative and relationship-based approach also worked very effectively to contain a second outbreak in August, where the town was again confronted with a cluster of 39 positive cases.

“It’s not about me personally, it’s more about other people and the impact it can have on them,” one man said. “Let’s keep Colac safe,” residents said in unison. And they did. They drove the number of infections down, kept their community safe, and built and strengthened community relationships.

Effective, localised responses

There is hope in Colac that the success of the community-led approach to COVID-19 might continue to be reflected in other aspects of the town’s life. “I feel a sense of real motivation now that we have a collective group that can say ‘right, how do we get small business going, how do we get our town presenting well, how do we get our council engaged, and our councillors working together as a community team so we’re all heading in the same direction and getting the tangible outcomes’,” Matt said. “It’s that kind of effective, localised response we need more of.” 

At CPI, we agree. In a recent article, we explored the power of partnerships and collaborations, as well as the importance of innovation, transparency and communication as imperatives. It’s hard to imagine a community embracing these themes more fully than Colac.