When I wrote to you last week my suburb was one of ten postcodes that had been put into lockdown. Numbers of positive cases have continued to grow, and so all of Melbourne has gone back into lockdown. Last time the numbers were mainly from overseas travellers. Disturbingly, this time numbers are from community spread. There has been a huge amount of testing and each positive case has to be traced, and contacts contacted and isolated. It is a mammoth job, requiring personnel from other states.
Our Premier, Dan Andrews, has likened it to a bushfire ~ and we are very familiar with them. There is the front of the fire that has to be brought under control, but we also know that there are spot fires that cannot be allowed to get out of hand.
[Andrews has copped a lot of flack because of the spread from hotel quarantine to security personnel. My friend Meeks points out that others, including the federal Liberal Government, had a big role to play in the outbreak too.]
Borders to other states have been closed. Like everything to do with this pandemic, closing the physical borders with South Australia and New South Wales, has thrown up many associated problems. Along the Murray River, the border between Victoria and NSW, are twin cities and towns. Like Albury and Wodonga; the former is in NSW, the latter in Victoria, but in so many regards they are the one city. People cross the border to work, go to medical and other appointments, visit friends and relatives and all those other things of daily life that we used to take for granted. Now they will need a permit to cross. No surprises to learn that the website approving the permits crashed because of high demand.
However, there has been a far more disturbing development.
A spike of cases has been identified in nine tower blocks of public housing on two separate sites in Flemington and North Melbourne. On Saturday the state government determined that those nine towers go into immediate hard lockdown ~ nobody was able to leave their flats for any reason at all. There was no warning for the 3,000 residents. The first they knew was a massive police presence on the estates, stopping people from leaving their homes.
This must have been so distressing for the tenants. Social housing means that residents have been doing it tough. There are many refugees, recent migrants, unemployed people, culturally and linguistically diverse communities. I can only imagine the trauma they felt when they saw the police on their doorstep. Many had memories of police and army brutality in their birth countries, while over the years policing on the estates has been very heavy handed.
Then it became clear that many issues had not been thought through. The main one was getting food and other essentials to the residents. The community rallied, providing food, meals, sanitary items, kids’ activities and so on. However, there seemed to be a long delay, sometimes days, before the food was able to get to people. Early on delivery was of culturally inappropriate food, food that was out of date or missing basics like nappies or milk. I don’t know why it was not possible for the food that was literally at the bottom of the towers to get to the residents. I am hoping that these supply chains have been built and that people are getting what they need.
I understand that public health action was needed. However it needed a public health response and not a policing one. If there had been a smaller police presence and a greater nursing/social worker/interpreter/community leader presence the anxiety of residents would have been minimised. It was always going to be difficult to ask people to not leave their home for at least 5 days, but I think the government created so many more difficulties by not communicating effectively, in as many languages as necessary.
I don’t want to give the impression that residents have been ignoring the public health advice. I am sure they abided by restriction in the previous lockdown. The problem is the conditions where they live ~ conditions, like small flats and lifts, that they have no control over.
However, this outbreak in the tower blocks has exposed so much more about the deep problem we have with our social housing, which is our lack of decent social housing.
These tower blocks were built in the 60’s, and there are a number dotted around Melbourne. They have never been the answer to public housing. The flats are small, with poor ventilation, and probably little maintenance, much less upgrade in those years. There are two small lifts in each block, expected to carry everyone up and down twenty stories. No surprise that they often break down.
Into these we put our most vulnerable citizens. People who usually have no ‘fat’ ~ no well stocked pantries, no extra in their bank accounts, little superannuation to draw on, no sick leave. Often jobs that are casual and/or precarious or in industries that can’t work from home. And no space. Such as a family with seven children in a two-bedroomed flat, where the girls sleep in one room, the boys in another, Mum and Dad sleep in the lounge room. There are many single parent families. Families could be multigenerational, which increases the likelihood of co-morbidities.
It is no wonder that we are seeing positive cases on the rise here. This virus is showing us the cracks in our society. It thrives where people are vulnerable, where they can’t distance, where they have to use communal spaces. We see this time and again around the world.
So, surely it is our job as a compassionate society to make make life as safe as possible for everyone. I hope the lessons from here are being applied in the other tower blocks. That hand sanitiser is freely available on all floors, in lifts, at entrances, and that it is replaced when it runs out. That all communal areas, especially lifts, are cleaned regularly and deeply. That the communication is ramped up, and provided in all languages necessary. That residents are involved, as this is their home. That community leaders are involved as well.
Residents in these tower blocks are not ‘other’, not ‘them. They are us, they are part of our vibrant community. And what an amazing job they have done. They have been at the front of this bushfire coronavirus, battling to help protect all of us.