'It was a scary day, somebody had to do it and that somebody was me': Unvaccinated Covid cleaners open up about risking their lives as they kill the deadly virus at Australia's hotspot sites
When we think of ridding Australia of Covid-19, it's politicians, chief health officers and scientists who come to mind.
But there's a job far more immediate and just as vital in the fight against the virus - the humble cleaner.
Thousands of cleaners across the nation have been working away, killing the virus at the huge numbers of exposure sites where Australians have tested positive.
Because there hasn't been enough Pfizer to go around, the vast majority of them have are unvaccinated when they face the virus.
Most cleaners are aged under 40 they are as apprehensive about the AstraZeneca vaccine as most Australians in their age group.
While aerosol transmission is now believed to be the main way the virus spreads, cleaners scrubbing down surfaces are a key part of slowing the spread of Covid, especially the highly-transmissible Delta variant.
When a positive case is identified, the premises - whether it's a shop, childcare centre or office - is listed as an exposure site, and the state health department often orders a 'hazmat deep clean'.
While 'Tier one' Covid exposure sites don't look like violent crime scenes, the 'emergency response' cleaning teams assigned must dress as if they are.
That means wearing the same gear as if the rooms were splattered in blood.
The typical Covid response cleaning team is dressed head-to-toe in personal protective equipment including hazmat suits, boots and boot covers, two pairs of gloves, and full-face masks with respirators that make them look like astronauts.
Because Covid is an invisible biohazard, cleaners say it is a 'scary experience' confronting the unseen enemy.
Covid-19 can live for up to 72 hours on surfaces and is not detectable - so cleaners need to be as precise as surgeons during their work at exposure sites.
'It was a scary day, somebody had to do it and that somebody was me,' said Farina of her first 'deep clean' at an office in south Sydney where two people had tested positive.
Farina was called at 4pm one afternoon and told to make her way to a location in Sydney's south, where she was sanitised and sealed inside a suit with a filter respirator.
She and four others spent five hours 'fogging' (spraying a peroxide-based chemical) and painstakingly disinfecting an office by hand.
'It's quite hard to describe, but it was scary and exhausting but an an amazing experience,' Farina, a Nepalese accounting graduate currently working as a fulltime cleaner in Sydney, said.
'It's so hot inside that suit and you don’t know if you're going to get Covid, but thankfully I am fine.'
The two types of Covid cleaning
- Typically late night jobs of at least three hours
- Base, such as car park or foyer, is sanitised to start work
- Teams of up to 10 specially-trained cleaners don head-to-toe hazmat suits and full-face masks
- Cleaners use fogging guns and cloths and
- Suits and gloves must be changed if cleaner leaves and re-enters the sterile environment
- Usually daytime work, while sites are in use
- Repeated cleaning of 'high touch point surfaces'
- These include: lift buttons; doors; all types of door handles such as fridges, cabinets; on/off switches for lights, computers, printers; vending machines and also all hand rails and toilets.
Chemicals used include:
- Stablished Hydrogen peroxide and benzalkonium chloride
Farina's employer, Prime Group, has about 200 cleaners trained specifically to kill Covid around Australia, including around 100 to clean at exposure sites which are regularly announced by the state's health departments.
One of those is Hala, 45, a rock'n'roll and car lover.
'Lockdown hasn't been fun, but I love that everyone has rallied together,' she said.
'My biggest Covid fear is for the countries worse off than Australia.'
The company has done 199 'emergency response' Covid cleans at exposure sites since February 2020.
Cleaners' incomes and hourly rates have also increased since the pandemic, in some cases over 40 per cent.
While award rates vary between $23 and $28 an hour, some cleaners are earning up to $40 an hour for emergency response cleaning jobs.
'I was a bit afraid, for sure,' said father-of-two, Bipin, 30, of his first Covid 'deep clean' at a Dandenong factory in March last year.
'We weren't sure how serious Covid would be at that time, it was new to everyone. What would happen to me if I caught it, or if my wife caught it?'
Because his wife works in an aged care home in Melbourne, the couple spend half an hour cleaning and disinfecting themselves before they can hug when they get home from work.
He has done over 50 Covid 'emergency' cleans since March 2020 and says the work still makes him feel nervous and a little edgy.
'But I'm confident as we are well trained and have the right equipment.'
Suji Siv, a part-time Christian pastor and CEO of the Clean Group, hadn't done manual cleaning work for a decade before the phone started ringing with enquiries about Covid.
Mr Siv, 42 and a father of three, felt obliged to get trained and confront Covid himself as a kind of calling from God.
'I hadn't done any manual cleaning for eight years but when we started getting a lot of calls, the more that we rejected those calls, the more I felt God was opening a door for me and there was a purpose to this.'
Mr Siv, the senior pastor with Tamil Church at Toongabbie, didn't feel he could ask his 55 employees to do something he wasn't prepared to do himself.
'If there is a risk to doing this I want to be sure that what we do is safe.'
He undertook training with Safework NSW and did the required online certifications and now gets out from behind the desk of his Pendle Hill office to clean at least two Covid exposure sites a week.
Forensic Cleaning Australia, which also cleans crime scenes and biohazard sites, has taken on Covid cleaning in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.
Matt Lawson, 28, from the Central Coast, says while Covid cleaning is difficult because the virus can't be seen, it's fulfilling work.
'There's a sense of responsibility and doing something important for the community - all those feelings,' he said.
Mr Lawson prefers messy cleaning jobs such as suicides because of the satisfaction of comparing the 'after' photos with the chaos they can see on arrival.
When Covid cleaners are not doing 'emergency response' jobs they are busy with preventative cleaning during the day because surfaces have to be cleaned while people are touching them.
This involves repeatedly cleaning hundreds of 'high touch point' surfaces - from lift buttons, to fridge and door handles, vending machines and on/off switches for lights, computers, printers and also hand rails and toilets.
A major issue for Covid cleaners is fear of catching the virus.
'You can see mould you can see a flood but you can't see a virus,' says Kasia Wrzesinski, director of Prime.
'None of us really expected to be dealing with biohazardous waste.'
While Prime is proud of its record of having zero positive cases among its 250 cleaners, the company says it is not fair that its staff - who are mostly aged under 40 - cannot get priority access to the Pfizer vaccine.
Why haven't they had AstraZeneca instead?
Like many Australians under 40, they are apprehensive about it.
'They seem to think the chances of getting a blood clot is scarier than the chance of passing from Covid,' Ms Wrzesinski said.
The answer is for authorities to treat Covid cleaners as essential workers, says Prime's CEO, Damien Smith.
'Hotel quarantine cleaners and health facility cleaners are considered essential workers and they all need to be vaccinated regardless of their age, but why not other cleaners?' he said.
'Covid-19 is not exclusive to the health/hotel sector.
'Our staff have been cleaning contaminated retail and hospitality businesses and are putting themselves at risk every day.'
'If you're literally going in to clean up the virus you should be vaccinated.'