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Port people are out walking, walking. And walking further – getting to know their place, their local-ity, as they would the overseas cities they once explored.

I walk into Fishermans Bend down Ingles St, past the Port Footy ground and the former Kitchen and Son factory where soap and candles were manufactured for over a hundred years.

The extent of the factory is shown in this 1939 aerial photograph taken by Charles Daniel Pratt. You may know the former administration building from a season of The Block – marked on the photograph.

Charles Daniel Pratt Airspy 1939 State Library of Victoria

A new development by Musk Architecture on the south western corner of that large site is approaching completion. It announces its former purpose in the adaptively re-used building.

Thinking about the soap factory in these COVID-19 times gave me a renewed and heightened appreciation of soap. Soap. So everyday, so low tech, so readily available. Yet washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds according to now familiar techniques is one of the most effective and accessible actions in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

I enjoy buying soap from the spectrum of smells and colours at Grace’s stall at the South Melbourne Market. Grace is stern in her expectations about the right amount of money. Cash-less transactions will mean a change for her.

As the pandemic is playing out, we are seeing the benefits of a strong health system and institutional frameworks – even though many of our institutions have been eroded in recent times. Among the many privileges many enjoy in Australia is the space to maintain physical distance, best quality running water on tap and ample soap supplies. There has been no run on soap as there has been on toilet paper. How the pandemic unfolds for our near neighbours in the Indo-Pacific is yet to be seen.

Since visiting East Timor in 2012 as an observer of the election held in that year, I have continued to be involved with Friends of Suai Covalima (FoSC), a friendship between Suai Covalima and the City of Port Phillip. The friendship is expressed through support for the Suai Covalima Community Centre (CCC). This relationship has given me a closer insight into the issues faced in this community. As you can see, Suai is a long way from Dili and it is also very close to the Indonesian border. The terrain is mountainous. The reach of the central government is tenuous. On March 28th, a state of emergency was declared ‘to avoid public calamity’

Through the strong relationship which exists between FoSC and the CCC, our coordinator has been able to share the messages we have been receiving from the Australian Government and find out how best we can support the CCC at this time.

Before the state of emergency was declared, staff from the CCC headed out to remote villages in the district sharing WHO resources and materials on preventing the spread of COVID-19. Now only permitted to travel into the district alone, the CCC staff have been placing information on hand washing stations re-inforcing the importance of hand washing. Hand washing is a less familiar practice than it is in Australia. The “Tippy Taps” shown in these photographs are simple and economical hand-washing stations, made with commonly available materials and not dependent on a piped water supply. There is some apprehension that there may be soap shortages. All soap comes from Indonesia.

We have been reminded time and time again that hand washing and physical distancing are fundamentally necessary to avoid overwhelming our health system. In East Timor the health system is very fragile as are the institutions of government.

If you would like to keep in touch with the work the CCC is doing to try and stem the spread of COVID-19, visit Friends of Suai Covalima’s facebook page.


Pall Thordarson The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus The Guardian 12 March 2020


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