The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series: “Oceania: Leading With Discipline and Determination”

Nov 4, 2021 3:30 PM ET

In September 2021, IWBI released an in-depth report that lays out research approaches and specific operational strategies as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for acute health threats into the future. Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report integrates proven strategies from the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and actionable insights garnered from IWBI staff and nearly 600 members of the Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections.

Over the next few months, we will repost a chapter from the report every week to help highlight specific themes and insights. The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series continues with “Oceania: Leading with Discipline and Determination,” authored by IWBI’s Jack Noonan, Vice President, Commercial, APAC Region.

Excerpt republished from: Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report

In June 2019, humanitarian public health and disaster response professionals from across Oceania met on the lush campus of James Cook University. They were gathered for one main purpose: to prepare for an emergency that they knew would someday come. Over the next two weeks, they developed plans to share information, simulated responses to a public health disaster and learned best practices from military leaders and government officials.

Little did these course participants know that the kinds of crises they were learning about and preparing for were months, not years, away. The ensuing bushfire season would be one of Australia’s deadliest, only to be followed by a catastrophic global pandemic that would require all of their resourcefulness—and then some.

Up until the Delta variant outbreaks in the summer of 2021, Oceania was one of the least affected areas in the world, and the region’s initial response was lauded as one of the world’s success stories, especially when compared to the death and devastation faced by other countries. This was due to a confluence of factors: a general acceptance that science should guide public health decision-making, which allowed the region to quickly shut down in response to an outbreak; a willingness to tolerate short-term “snap” lockdowns to curb large-scale outbreaks; and a coordinated response across countries, with a common commitment to preventing cross-border spread through border closures.

It’s no surprise that Oceania was well-poised to respond to these crises. Living in one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions, communities have long understood the value of coordination in protecting against emergencies. Now, in light of the pandemic, these communities—including businesses—are increasingly enlisting physical spaces in the fight to keep them well.

Already, Australia is the most saturated market applying WELL and companies based there are leading the way and among the highest performing on the GRESB Index. Thanks to all this investment in healthy buildings in Oceania, more owners and occupants have been able to realize the benefits, including hundreds of tenants who have been able to mitigate risk for their employees and communities. Their experiences show the role healthy buildings can play alongside an effective national strategy in not only responding to the crisis but recovering as well.

Excerpt: Preparing for the Unpredictable
Across Oceania, governments shifted into high gear as soon as the threat from COVID-19 became evident. Weeks before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, leaders in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific Island nations initiated their emergency response plans. No strangers to natural disaster, they had the benefit of seeing the pandemic spread in other regions—and quickly took steps to prevent similar outcomes.

Organizations, too, quickly activated their emergency management plans. Having developed a culture of resilience planning, they focused on their people first. They started by supporting their employees’ physical safety, distributing supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE), setting clear expectations for roles and responsibilities and providing workers with the latest public health information.

Once their employees were safe, companies next addressed how they could work safely. Although nearly four in 10 Australians had never worked from home prior to the pandemic, companies soon began adapting their businesses to the demands of a remote workforce. For example, some companies initiated flexible work schedules, so that those taking care of families could better balance the demands of their role. Others offered simple workplace modifications, such as ergonomic desks, to ensure that at-home workplaces could promote well-being. Ultimately, those that implemented work-from-home setups saw employees continue their jobs with minimal disruption to business operations…

Excerpt: Enlisting Buildings in the Fight
After much of Oceania was able to end its initial lockdowns early, businesses began to return to their physical offices sooner than much of the rest of the world. And rather than stop at emergency planning, leaders across the region took another proactive step: they enlisted buildings in the fight against COVID-19.

Take the issue of indoor air quality, for example. Traditionally blessed with high-quality outdoor air around major cities, Australians have historically taken the air quality indoors for granted. But after being faced with bushfires that blanketed entire cities with smoke and now a virus known to linger in the air, the question of air quality has become a focus for many Australians…

Excerpt: Caring for the Invisible Crisis
Since the early days of the pandemic, experts have warned about a coming “second wave” of the pandemic: a mental health crisis. In Oceania, what has come is more akin to a tsunami—not only of mental health issues, but also of domestic violence. One study recently found that 30 percent of Australians were suffering from “moderate to high levels of anxiety and depression.” Another indicated that the rate of domestic violence was surging in New Zealand, particularly against women and children, with one study finding a 20 percent spike in cases after the initial three weeks of the pandemic. This trend continued across the Pacific Island countries; in Fiji, for example, the number of women seeking help for domestic violence incidents rose more than six-fold between February and April.

In the short term, governments have stepped up to act, with the Australian Federal Government announcing AU$1.1 billion for mental health services and domestic violence support and the Victorian State Government announcing AU$512 million for mental health treatment, support and infrastructure. But in the long term, it will take a more comprehensive approach to build mental resilience, which includes addressing underlying issues related to violence in families and against women and children to prevent future spikes…

The truth is, no organization can perfectly respond to every threat posed by COVID-19. As months go by, Oceania’s experience demonstrates that even the most proactive of responses is no foolproof safeguard against an ever-evolving virus. As this special report was being readied for release in August 2021, a surge in cases driven by the COVID-19 Delta variant put more than 20 million Australians, around 80 percent of the population, under new restrictions - the highest number since a national lockdown at the start of the pandemic.

However, every organization can learn from, and embrace, the values that have guided Oceania’s ongoing response: a commitment to health and preparedness; a recognition that buildings that prioritize health can improve conditions for people and communities, and even contribute to a broader strategy; and a willingness to address difficult issues like mental health and domestic violence.

If they do, they can equip themselves not only to overcome this crisis—but to thrive long into the future.

Read the full section here.