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Residents in the public housing towers had no warning they would face some of the world’s toughest restrictions, as the state undertook a Covid-19 testing blitz. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Five days inside the Melbourne nine block lockdowns

Clockwise from left: Police officers outside a public housing estate in Flemington; supporters spray-paint a sign of support for residents in lockdown; Mariam Koslay shows her solidarity at a public housing estate in North Melbourne.
Credit: Main picture: Michael Currie / Alamy; OthERS: Mariam Koslay on Instagram

The sudden announcement comes from Daniel Andrews midafternoon on Saturday, July 4. At a press conference, the Victorian premier declares nine of Melbourne’s public housing towers, on the city’s western edge, will be “the subject of a complete lockdown, effective immediately”. Residents in these estates will not be able to leave their homes, for any reason, for five days. It could last longer.

The premier says the decision to impose this “hard lockdown” on the towers has been informed by public health advice “given that there are positive cases in a number of those towers and given the very high density of that nature of housing, the number of shared facilities”.

The minister for Housing, Richard Wynne, steps in to share more detail. “This is personal for me. I worked on the Flemington high-rise estate for seven years,” he says. “I also live 50 metres from the North Melbourne housing estate… This is a community that is part of my world. We shop together, we live together.”

Like the premier, Wynne repeatedly describes the residents now under lockdown as “vulnerable”. The measures imposed, he says, will include medical support, mental health support, drug and alcohol support and food supplies.

Soon, 500 police officers arrive at the towers in Flemington and North Melbourne to enforce the directives.

Julian Acheampong is visiting his girlfriend when the news alert comes through on his phone. “I saw that my building number was part of the buildings being forced to hard lockdown,” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant.” Acheampong, who lives with his mother, calls her to liaise about what supplies they will need for the next five days.

Across town, in Carlton, community organiser Idil Ali starts getting text messages and calls. She and others begin posting information online, gleaned from conversations with those in the affected towers. “We just knew that a lot of young people were on Instagram and wouldn’t be on Facebook,” she says. “And because most of our team were current or previous youth workers, we wanted to make sure the young people knew what was going on.”

Mukhtar Mohammed is having lunch with his daughters when he hears the news about the lockdown. “I dropped my daughters off and straight away went into Flemington. I was there when the police were coming in.”

For Mohammed, who works with the Islamic Council of Victoria, it was personal. Born in Eritrea, he moved to Melbourne with his family in 1997, aged just 13. “I’ve grown up in public housing; my family still lives in public housing. Flemington was the first suburb I came to when I came to Australia.”

Acheampong stocks up on groceries on his way back home to the North Melbourne towers. There isn’t much of a police presence when he arrives at 76 Canning Street. “I was able to get in without any pushback from police or questioning,” he says. “It was when I tried to leave the second time, about half an hour later, that I was met at the door by police.” The officer’s response is firm: “No, you can’t leave. You’re in lockdown.”

Back in Carlton, later that evening, Ali organises an Instagram Live with residents across the estates to share updates. “This is beyond frustrating,” she tells those watching. “We feel that we’re under siege, as a community.” She is soon joined by Hala Nur and several others during the hour-long broadcast.

Nur peers towards the camera, reading out some questions and comments being shared by the viewers. “Somebody said, ‘Even the suburbs, they were given two days [to prepare for lockdown]’ … this was effective immediately. Everybody found out the same time,” says Nur.

One of those tuned in is journalist Mariam Koslay, who is watching from her home in Melbourne’s west. Of Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni descent, Koslay recently returned from a seven-month visit to Ethiopia, which prompted her to reassess her own life. “I’d returned to becoming a more dedicated community member and I just wanted to do more for my community,” she says.

Before the hard lockdown, she had been off social media for a week, but returned to posts about what was happening to residents in the towers. Ali’s Instagram Live was the starting point; after that, Koslay began messaging with the various communities affected.

 

On Sunday, Premier Andrews elaborates on the hard lockdown measures. They will include rent relief and hardship payments for the affected residents. “There will be public health workers … moving throughout each and every one of these floors, each and every one of the towers, to test each and every resident,” he says.

The measures will only be relaxed once every single resident in the towers is tested.

“There has been an enormous amount of work going on right throughout the night in order to provide food, essentials, drug and alcohol support, mental health support, family violence support, physical health care and support that’s needed for those that have pre-existing medical conditions,” he adds.

The word “vulnerable” is again a fixture of the press conference.

It’s a description Julian Acheampong recoils from. “I’m not vulnerable,” he says. “I look at some of the people in this building and they are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

In a media release, the government announces that translators have arrived at the towers. But information is already being shared on social by community members, translated in 12 languages: Yoruba, Oromo, Tigrinya, Somali, French, Lingala, Swahili, Arabic, Turkish, Ndebele and Shona.

“Police have been ordered to be inside the buildings on every floor. So please beware, we know the relationship between our communities and police, so we are advising those who are able to, to just stay at home,” one post reads.

Another post begins circulating on social media, entitled simply “Lockdown Residents’ Demands”. It is not apparent whether there is any particular community group attached to it. The post calls for five issues to be addressed, including allowing the residents to leave their homes and the removal of police officers from the buildings.

Elsewhere online, images of the food boxes provided to residents from the government begin to surface. Some level concerns about the lack of essentials included, such as milk and bread.

The Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA) is co-ordinating food deliveries to residents in the towers and has opened its doors for people to donate supplies. Mukhtar Mohammed has been liaising with AMSSA to manage the large influx of supplies reaching the centre.

One of the AMSSA volunteers, identified as Apollo Hersi, makes an appeal on Instagram for more donations and volunteers.

“Our job is not done,” Hersi says in the post. “The Department of Health and Human Services stated that they delivered food to residents in North Melbourne and Flemington yesterday. That is absolutely rubbish. The food cannot be eaten, the food is expired.”

Later that night, Ahmed Dini, of community group Ubuntu Project, which works to “improve integration outcomes and services for African–Australian communities”, appears on Instagram Live to discuss the lockdown. As he talks with Nor Shanino, who once lived in the Flemington housing towers, the pair expresses frustration at the lack of preparation to ensure residents’ safety prior to the hard lockdown.

“We should have been dealt with respect,” says Dini, who currently lives in the 76 Canning Street tower in North Melbourne. “A lot of workers in our community are front-line workers. They going as nurses, some of them drive Ubers … it was always going to be an issue for us that someone in the community might get in contact [with Covid-19].”

At the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, lawyer Daniel Long Nguyễn has been busy fielding inquiries and concerns from the community. “Everything from being able to get access to food and health and things like insulin and what the legalities there are about getting stopped at the door,” he explains. “We’ve seen people and have had reports of people getting arrested that haven’t been able to assist locals, having interference with police … We’ve assisted in establishing an emergency hotline which residents are able to contact in case they might need any issues that might emerge … That’s currently being operated 24 hours [a day].”

 

On Monday, the state government says it is “ramping up” services and support for tenants with “thousands of meals, supplies and personal care packs delivered in the past 24 hours”.

But Ahmed Dini says he is yet to see any of it at his North Melbourne tower. He regrets not making a dash to the Woolworths that is “50 metres” from where he lives to get last-minute supplies when the announcement was made. “If things don’t arrive in the coming days, I’m in trouble,” he says.

“Not only is some of the food expired, but a lot of the food is non-halal,” he says, pointing out the pies that were delivered by the government. “I haven’t eaten those three pies because they’re not halal,” he says.

Another group emerges on social media, calling itself SE Mutual Aid. It shares bank details with instructions on how to donate and says donations will be used to purchase and deliver supplies for affected residents.

Meanwhile, Julian Acheampong says he’s yet to hear from officials, more than 48 hours into lockdown. “Everything I knew I found out from either reading it online or seeing it in the news that my mum watches,” he says. “There was no real communication over the PA … there was no doorknock, no direction of what was happening. No letter.

“The only text message I got was ‘Covid-19 testing will resume shortly’.”

About 11pm that night, his family’s food box finally arrives.

 

By Tuesday, Idil Ali is helping co-ordinate the packing of food and supplies at AMSSA’s donation centre in North Melbourne. Despite an outpouring of support from people in Melbourne, she says there is some stigma around perceptions of which groups are spreading the virus.

Hulya, a resident in one of the towers in Flemington, details her lockdown experience to the 7am podcast, and says it’s starting to take a toll.

“The more you sit idle, your mind starts to race and then you start to think of all the terrible scenarios. And then you’re on social media reading things because you’ve got nothing else to do,” she says. “Yeah, it’s just… It’s really bad for your mental health. Especially when you come across those really nasty comments. Calling you names and calling you opportunists and things like that.”

Julian Acheampong is still waiting for his Covid-19 test but knows the “testing unit” has been set up in front of the building. He gets a call from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) asking whether his family received their food packages and if any medication is needed. “It was just a courtesy check-up that we should have received days ago,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mariam Koslay notices that blinds in many of the units are closed, and the lights switched off. “I was concerned,” she says. Before the lockdown, there had been activity inside the towers – now things have stilled.

In the afternoon, she and two friends decide to spray-paint the words “we see you” onto white sheets, holding them up for residents to view. From some windows, residents wave back; others open their blinds to see what’s happening.

In the evening, footage begins circulating on social media that appears to show a young black man on the ground and surrounded by a few police officers at one of the Flemington flats. The clip lasts only about a minute, and it’s difficult to make out exactly what’s happening. One woman – who says she’s a health worker – can be heard shouting, “De-escalate. He’s just trying to deliver food. Please. Please stop.”

 

Videos of the incident are still popping up on Wednesday. There’s little detail about what actually happened. Melbourne-based hip-hop artist REMi shares a post asking for people to take down the video. “The brother involved has requested for it to be removed,” it reads.

“We’re aware of that incident,” says Daniel Long Nguyễn from the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre. He says it raises concerns about how Victoria Police have historically dealt with the communities who make up much of these towers. “We’ve been dealing with a public health emergency and centring policing at the forefront. The fact that police were front-line responders to residents in the Flemington and North Melbourne estates is troubling,” he says.

But what actually happened at 12 Holland Court the previous night? “I can’t comment on that particular matter,” says Nguyễn.

Julian Acheampong’s mother is Filipino and his father has Ghanaian heritage. He says that soon after Daniel Andrews’ announcement on Tuesday of a Melbourne-wide six-week lockdown, inflammatory comments were directed towards him. “It was about the Black Lives Matter protest being the reason why we have coronavirus cases,” he says.

“I had this stunned look on my face,” he recalls, frustrated. “It’s classism.”

Acheampong says lockdown is deeply affecting some elderly residents in his building. One older man, “he’s a smoker and just wanted tobacco”, Acheampong says. “His family tried to drop off tobacco and they wouldn’t even let them pass it to him. I feel for him. He’s frustrated and he just wants to get on with things.”

About 3.30pm on Wednesday, Acheampong finally gets a Covid-19 test. It’s not what he would describe as a pleasant experience. “Think of like a really, really long Q-tip,” he says. “They scrape the back of your throat … and that same Q-tip goes up your nose and they go all the way up… I had tears in my eyes.”

He says health workers told him that 76 Canning Street, North Melbourne, was the last building to be tested. The hard lockdown, he hopes, will come to an end on Thursday.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has been contracted by the state government – along with a few other providers – to make culturally appropriate food for the locked-down residents.

Another organisation calling itself “Voices from the Block” says residents are in “desperate need of food and medicine” and unable to get through to the hotline designated by DHHS. “These families could not afford to wait around hungry and risk their health while the government implemented policy on the fly, four months into a global pandemic,” it says.

On Wednesday evening, DHHS says testing “will be completed tonight” across all the towers. The results will be communicated soon.

 

By Thursday, early reports indicate an end may be in sight. Voices from the Block shares details of the “demands from the coalition of residents, family members and community”, translated into Spanish, Farsi, Vietnamese, Tagalog, simplified and traditional Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, Turkish, Kurdish, Urdu and Pashto. SE Mutual Aid announces on social media that it has “decided to stop taking any further donations, financial or otherwise as of now – as the immediate needs that existed during the initial chaos have begun to be met”.

On Thursday afternoon, Julian Acheampong receives word that his test results are negative. By the end of the afternoon the government announces that due to a high number of positive Covid-19 tests in one North Melbourne tower, residents of that building will remain in hard lockdown until they complete 14 days of quarantine. Residents of two towers that recorded no positive cases will move to the same stage 3 restrictions that apply across Melbourne. The remaining towers, which include Acheampong’s, will no longer be in hard lockdown but will undergo an “intensive monitoring program”, according to Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton. The state’s Police minister, Lisa Neville, says tower residents who tested positive have the opportunity to move to designated hotels.

Notwithstanding the news of a negative test result, Acheampong says the impact of the hard lockdown will reverberate for some time. “I think when this is all done, I’ll email my psychologist,” he says. “It’s trauma. Having cops at your door and it’s not even that I’ve done anything wrong – it’s been imposed by the Daniel Andrews government.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Five days inside the Melbourne nine block lockdowns".

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Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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