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As paid workers stay home in droves, maybe now we'll start to truly value our volunteers

Opinion

More than 290 million volunteer hours are calculated to have been lost during COVID-19. Surely it’s time we properly recognised the worth of our volunteers, writes Madonna King

Print article

A lot will change permanently when the COVID hangover subsides. One of them should be to give our volunteers a break.

I had a reminder of their value this week, not long after sunrise, on a run along the path that follows the golden sands of Main Beach and the Spit on the Gold Coast.

It sounded like a call for help. Perhaps. A female’s voice, rising above the crash of angry waves.

Then it stopped. Was it “help’’? Or was it “Hal’’? And then it happened again.

“Did you hear that,’’ another runner, no doubt with the same New Year resolution list, asked. “Was that a call for help?’’

Together, we detoured off the track and onto the beach. Two figures. A man and a woman. Waving wildly, beyond the swell. They were only 20 metres out. Were they needing assistance, or yelling to someone else on the beach?

And then, within seconds, they were out a further 10 metres, and were pulled 30 metres to the right.

An elderly man, walking along the beach, saw them too, ripped off his shirt and began swimming against the tide towards them.

Within seconds, he was on a different path. 20 metres from them. 100 metres. And then 150 metres.

It was the first time I’d seen a rip, in motion. Its speed was scary. “I’ll call life-savers,’’ I said. “I’ll call triple 0,’’ someone else said.

A kilometre from the nearest patrolled beach, lifesavers were not yet answering. But the Triple 0 operator was asking for details. A couple in their 20s in the water. You saw them, then you didn’t. Bobbing up and down, like those dolls you can buy at souvenir shops. An older man, perhaps a granddad, had risked his own life to save them, but he now looked in real strife too. Hurry.

And they did. Two lifesaver vehicles, racing from different directions. Working together. A beachgoer restrained others from risking their own lives, while gesticulating at the bobbing pair to swim in the direction of the rip, not against it. A life-saver jumped, on his board, paddled like an Olympian.

Within minutes, it was over. Family arrived. Breathless. Hugging the victors of an early morning rip. I cried, with a sense of relief. A little miracle in a year that had started without many.

And we all restarted our exercise routines, as the lifesavers went back to their posts manning closed beaches, and continually asking people to stay out of the water.

What gives someone the right to swim on an unpatrolled beach; to risk the lives of those walking by, or the life-savers whose job dictates they put their own lives at risk?

We drink-drive, and cop a penalty. We sell cigarettes to a minor, and receive a fine. We jay walk, and can find ourselves out of pocket. And yet, daily, our life-savers are risking their own lives to save those deliberately flouting the law.

Our beaches have become more popular since COVID; an outdoor, healthy escape for swimmers and non-swimmers, tourists and locals.

But that comes with an added risk to that big group of volunteers, who use their own money to train, educate themselves, and travel to work to save the lives of others.

Why shouldn’t the expenses of our volunteers be tax deductible?

Research by Volunteering Australia and the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has shown the impact of COVID on volunteering, with about 2.3 million fewer Australians gifting their time and skills. The number of volunteer hours plummeted 293 million hours in the first year after COVID hit our shores.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been thrown at JobKeeper payments and to sandbag marginal electorates – and yet volunteers are expected to pay their own expenses – from travel to uniforms – to give a hand to others.

COVID has taught us all the value of our frontline paid workers – from nurses to doctors, paramedics and teachers.

With the stroke of a pen, and a negligible addition to debt levels, we could provide a nod of thanks to those who don’t get paid, by making their expenses tax deductible – whether they are organising park runs, providing strategic advice to charities, or turning up to read to school children.

Volunteers, like our life-savers, who also don’t wait for a rostered starting time to save the lives of strangers.

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