The unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19 united communities and countries from around the world as we all found new ways to live and work together and to respond to this global pandemic.
Every year, Victim Support New Zealand assists around 40,000 people affected by crime, trauma, and suicide. Amongst these, we provide support to more than 3,000 people affected by suicide, some 2,000 people affected by homicide, and another 7,000 people bereaved by sudden or traumatic deaths. This capability left us well placed to assist people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis – especially those bereaved or requiring psycho-social support.
New Zealand’s unique geographical location enabled us to observe and monitor developments overseas and consider the impact of COVID-19 on our communities. When New Zealand went into lockdown on 25 March 2020, Victim Support was well-positioned to activate our business continuity plan to ensure victims would continue to receive comprehensive support from our full range of support services.
New Zealand came out of lockdown on 14 May and Victim Support is now in the process of adapting and returning to the new normal.
Throughout this period, Victim Support continued to operate 24/7, providing psycho-social support, information, advice and practical assistance for victims remotely. Our volunteer workforce already worked from home and required their own devices. The change was bigger for our 140 staff, who shifted to a working from home environment at less than a week’s notice.
Under normal circumstances, our workforce is highly dispersed. Our Support Workers communicate with victims through a range of mediums so a transition to remote work and support to victims has been a very smooth process. Training was quickly organised for all staff on working from home and self-care during social isolation. These were delivered by webinar, together with the development and distribution of information and instructions to support staff on the use of new technology and ways of working.
Key information and support resources were shifted online, a feature page was created on our website to collate all key COVID-19 information relevant to victims in one place, and key brochures and support resources related to bereavement were urgently updated and made available to Support Workers to access online.
For the period that the country was in lockdown, Support Workers primarily administered support by telephone with increased reliance on video, email, and digital information and communications. Since the end of the lockdown, Victim Support is still encouraging reliance on remote communication alternatives where these are practicable.
The biggest challenge was for our Contact Service. Open around the clock, the Victim Support Contact Service is the default point of referral for victim assistance for Police, liaising with support workers and other agencies to ensure victims are connected with the right people to get the support they need.
Relying heavily on technology in a centralised office environment, an abrupt move to remote working due to lockdown posed a huge challenge but one they overcame without downtime. Transition of the Contact Service team in 48 hours to working remotely in response to COVID-19, ensured continuity of service to victims, with callers not experiencing anything different to our normal call centre environment.
The challenges of COVID-19 affirmed the agility and resilience of Victim Support, which no doubt was bolstered over the year prior by complex responses to the devastating terror attacks at our mosques in Christchurch and a deadly volcanic eruption at Whakaari/White Island.
As we look ahead to continuing our work to support victims with the lifting of restrictions, we will take the learnings from our response to COVID-19. There will be new ways of work to help us provide the much-needed support to victims as they face the secondary epidemics of family violence and suicide that may well arise from the on-going impacts of COVID-19.