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While residents of Melbourne’s public housing towers were given no notice of an impending hard lockdown, concerns raised earlier to the DHHS and department of Housing about the threat posed by Covid-19 to those families were largely ignored. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Tower residents’ virus warnings unheeded

Amona Hassab grew up in Melbourne’s Flemington public housing towers and still has family there. “My sister, my mum, my niece, my brother-in-law,” she explains, “and I’ve got cousins and family friends that live in all the towers across Melbourne.”

She says she knows the challenges residents of these towers face when trying to communicate with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “People that live in the estate … we’ve never been prioritised,” she says.

And that’s what prompted Hassab to write to DHHS as far back as March raising concerns about the potential impact Covid-19 could have on tower residents.

Hassab says she knew many of the residents suffered from chronic illnesses, while others were front-line workers. “Uber drivers, aged-care workers, in factories, abattoirs … that all just added a greater risk of contracting it,” she says.

Her letter to the department, seen by The Saturday Paper, included a series of recommendations she believed could help protect residents.

“I made recommendations that there should not only be translated material but perhaps images of how to socially distance, wash your hands,” she says. “And I suggested that they allow not more than a family at any time in the lifts.”

The response she received from the department “wasn’t great”, says Hassab. “I was told … ‘Do you think those people will comply?’ ” She says that while the official reassured her they would follow up with their superiors “nothing happened after that”.

Hassab says her cousin, Hana, currently a Flemington tower resident, also contacted DHHS. And while the government was quick to lock down the towers with little notice given to residents, it was slow to respond to their warnings early in the pandemic.

Ellen Sandell, the local MP for Melbourne and acting leader of the Victorian Greens, says her office worked with federal Greens MP Adam Bandt to translate Covid-19-related material “in the most common languages” to distribute to residents “very early in the pandemic”.

“But we were prevented by the office of Housing – Richard Wynne’s department – from distributing that,” says Sandell. “We ended up posting it out with the limited money that we had to some residents, but why wasn’t that done by the office of Housing?”

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, Minister for Housing Richard Wynne says the government has followed “the advice of the health experts and this decision was no different – it was incredibly hard to have to take the course of action we did, but the alternative of seeing the virus spread further and endanger the lives of so many, was simply not acceptable.”

 

Mental health counsellor Tigist Kebede has been providing advocacy and support to residents since the towers were placed into lockdown. She says the move by the state government to place the public housing towers in police-enforced quarantine was a clear example of classism and racism.

“When the government responds in this way, and treats these people that come from these classes and these backgrounds in this way, it’s really hard not to see this as an issue around class and race,” she says.

“Right across the road from Flemington [public housing estate] are three apartment complexes that are private. They share the same lifts, they share the same foyer, they share the same car park, and there isn’t a concern there.”

Kebede also questions the use of police to respond to a public health issue.

“So far, the greatest numbers on the ground have been police…

“What’s playing out in this public housing is that the systemic neglect and the systemic history of how governments and people have treated those who live in public housing … have been now amplified and exposed.”

Wynne has defended the move to deploy 500 police officers to the towers. “We understand this has been an extremely difficult time for residents in these high rises but our response and the decision to mobilise Victoria Police to immediately carry it out was not about punishment – it was about protection,” he says.

Federal Labor MP Peter Khalil grew up in public housing after his parents migrated from Egypt and says all governments, state and federal, on all sides of politics, have long rendered residents in housing estates “invisible”.

“In this moment, we should be asking questions around not just the short-term issue around provision of food during a lockdown, but what about funding for public housing which has declined over the decades, across all governments,” he says.

“What about resourcing for public housing? What about the attitudes and the way bureaucracy deals with people that live in those towers with a degree of dignity and respect?”

The Greens have called for an inquiry into the state government’s management of the public housing lockdowns.

“I think it’s legitimate to ask pertinent questions about how residents in housing commissions were treated during that hard lockdown,” says Khalil.

For residents in one public housing tower in Flemington though, that “hard lockdown” is far from over.

While eight of the nine public housing towers moved to stage 3 restrictions with the rest of Melbourne after a five-day testing blitz, the residents of 33 Alfred Street remain in police-enforced quarantine.

Authorities defended the move to extend the measures by an additional nine days, noting that 53 cases were detected in the estate.

Rukia has lived at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne, for more than a decade since she migrated to Australia with her family from New Zealand. Originally from Somalia, she now lives in a six-bedroom home with 12 members of her family.

Almost two weeks in, the impact of the hard lockdown has started to take its toll.

“I’ve got a large family, tons of kids running around. I can’t get any work done,” she says. “The thing that really irritates me about this lockdown is I feel like I can’t do any of my uni … It’s killing me.” 

Rukia says the government’s management of the hard lockdown is still haphazard, and many residents in 33 Alfred Street are angry. “This is meant to be a health crisis and a health issue and the medical needs of many of the residents are being neglected,” she says.

To add to the feelings of neglect, the government erected temporary fencing around the tower block on Saturday to provide residents with space to exercise. But many residents saw the move as dehumanising and protested for the removal of the fencing. This took place in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Rukia says many residents are from war-torn countries and suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD. She says the fences – which she describes as cages – would have triggered pre-existing trauma for many of them.

“They use words like detainment and refer to us as detainees, and the fact that they just put cages around us affirms the fact that we are prisoners,” she says.

Rukia’s grandmother, who has suffered a stroke and is “physically impaired from the waist down”, requires medication every day. This medication was due to run out and the family contacted DHHS four days ahead of time to alert them to the urgency of the elderly woman’s health needs.

“Every single day we contacted them,” says Rukia. “On that Thursday, they didn’t even contact us, and they didn’t provide us with any medication.”

Instead, the family reached out to the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency, which has been co-ordinating the volunteer response with the communities in the towers. “They were able to deliver it [the medication] in less than one day,” says Rukia.

Meanwhile, the Housing department withdrew rent payments from residents’ bank accounts, even after the government announced residents would get two weeks’ free rent and hardship payments. Rukia says the department apologised for the error but, for her, apologies aren’t enough.

“I want accountability,” she says, without pause. “I want them to take accountability for all the wrongdoings they have done because they have made so many promises they have fallen short on.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "‘Systemic neglect’".

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Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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