‘No one allowed in ... and no one allowed out’

Paul Hayes

5/07/2020 1:04:07 PM

With police on hand to oversee a ‘hard lockdown’ of nine Melbourne public housing towers, Australia entered an unprecedented phase of its pandemic response. What does that mean for some of the country’s most vulnerable people?

Police in front of a tower
Police began enforcing the lockdown as soon as it was announced on Saturday afternoon. (Image: AAP)


When Victoria confirmed 108 cases of coronavirus on Saturday 4 July – the state’s second highest single-day total since the pandemic began – Daniel Andrews acted quickly.
And without warning.
Thousands of residents will be forced to stay in their homes after the Victorian Premier announced, at 4.00 pm on Saturday, an immediate ‘hard lockdown’ of nine public housing towers in Melbourne.  
‘There will be no one allowed in ... and no one allowed out,’ Premier Andrews said.
‘If you’re in one of those towers … you will not be allowed to leave your unit, your dwelling within that tower, for any reason.’
The lockdown will last for a minimum of five days while health officials try to test each resident and assess the results. The towers will be patrolled by 500 Victorian police officers, who will be charged with ensuring residents abide by the restrictions.

Officers arrived once the announcement was made on Saturday afternoon.

‘I just opened my eyes and the police were everywhere, and 90% of the people on the estate had no idea why they were here,’ Elhadi Abass, a resident of one of the towers, wrote in The Guardian.
Such tough restrictions are unprecedented in Australia.
According to Victorian Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen, the high-density nature of the towers, including sharing facilities, makes transmission more likely. Authorities have reportedly found at least 23 new cases in the towers, though they expect to confirm several more.
‘We are extremely concerned that there are many hundreds of people in these towers who have already been exposed to the cases that we’ve found and possibly to cases that exist and that we haven’t found,’ she said.
The dramatic move came without warning, with residents, many of whom were not home at the time, caught completely by surprise.

‘There were no interpreters, no social workers, no medical workers, just lots of police,’ another resident, Hiba Shanino, wrote.
‘It was a very forceful way of handling it.’
Ahmed Dini, who lives in North Melbourne’s Canning Street tower, said residents were not prepared for such immediate restrictions.
‘I was shocked when I heard that, honestly,’ Mr Dini told Nine Newspapers. ‘And to say, “effective immediately” – there are people in the community saying, “I’ve got to go out, I’ve got to get milk and food for the kids”.’
Mr Dini added that the presence of police officers will be potentially be very confronting for residents, many of whom are refugees who have fled violent and war-torn regions.
‘Right now, do you know how scary this looks?’ he said.
Premier Andrews said the police are playing a vital role in helping to contain the spread.
‘I can indicate to you that Victoria Police are in charge of this important work. That’s both from a public order point of view, but also maintaining the security of this lockdown,’ he said on Saturday.
‘That is, I think, exactly the right way to go and Victoria Police are … in place to ensure that people are not entering other than those who are residents returning home, and that people are not leaving if they are a resident in those towers.’
The decision to use police comes amid ongoing allegations that the private security contractors used in Melbourne’s quarantine hotels were not properly trained in infection control and may have helped spread the virus.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said that extra support will be made available to people in the towers. (Image: AAP)

Premier Andrews also added two new postcodes – 3031 (Flemington and Kensington) and 3051 (North Melbourne) – to the 10 already under stage-three restrictions. All nine of the locked down towers are located in Flemington and North Melbourne.
The total restrictions on the towers differ from those in place in Melbourne’s hotspot suburbs, where people can leave home to work, provide care, exercise or buy groceries.
‘[Tower] residents will be supported with onsite clinical care, as well as food delivery and care packages,’ Premier Andrews said.
What does this mean for patients?
Stage-three restrictions are one thing, but they do allow for leaving the house. Being completely restricted to one’s home – under threat of police guard – is something else entirely.
Issues of mental health are among the first thought for the 3000 people affected the hard lockdown.
Some residents told Guardian Australia they feel ‘singled out’ by the order, and say they are intimidated by the police presence.
‘You had other suburbs where they had 48 hours warning before they were put in lockdown,’ a resident named Hana said. ‘How come we are any different? It just feels like we have been singled out.’

Mr Abass said he does not know why police are needed to address a public health situation.
‘What we need is more testing, lots of testing, but not lockdowns. Yesterday they sent 500 police. Why?’ he wrote. ‘This is not a police issue. Why didn’t they send us 500 nurses?’
Hulya Selin lives with her young son in a two-bedroom apartment in one of the towers. She likened the experience to feeling like ‘we’re in a prison’.
‘It’s a lonely place to be at the moment,’ she told ABC Radio Melbourne.
‘Everyone else down the road, for example, they’re allowed to leave their house for four reasons.
‘That choice has been taken away from us and I can’t really understand why.’
Emma King, Chief Executive of the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS), issued a statement immediately after the lockdown was announced. She called on the Victorian Government and police to ensure people providing support services can still access residents.
‘This is public health decision and we don’t quibble with that. The last thing we want is COVID ripping through these buildings, infecting tenants en masse,’ she said.
‘But we need to make sure these lockdowns are done right, done proportionately and done with sensitivity.
‘If we get this wrong, the consequences will be horrific.’
Ms King underlined the fact many in the towers are among the most vulnerable people in Australia, increasing the possibility of lockdown measures exacerbating existing mental health issues.
‘Some public housing tenants have fled war or family violence. Some are dealing with mental health challenges,’ she said. ‘Many don’t speak English as their first language. Many others work casual or insecure jobs.
‘Being told you cannot leave your house, or seeing police on your doorstep, can be quiet confronting. Being cut off from outside support services and family networks will also be damaging for many people.
‘This lockdown will scare many people, and trigger memories of past trauma.’

Victoria’s Housing Minister Richard Wynne said officials are aware of the difficulties tower residents will face in the lockdown.
‘Many of them are subject to comorbidities and we want to ensure that we wrap around them all of the services that they are going to need, not just over the next five days or, indeed, potentially the next 14 days, but going forward that we provide them with all of the support they need to maintain their tenancy, but obviously to maintain their wellness also,’ he said
‘What I want to reassure all of our public housing tenants who are affected by this, that we will put in place all of the measures that will be required to support them in the most practical way.’
The State Government said it would arrange the delivery of food and medical supplies to all homes, though initial reports indicate residents are yet to receive any such visitors.
Premier Andrews said on Sunday that extra support will be made available to people in the towers.
‘A range of services are already available on the ground across the estates, with the Victorian Multicultural Commission actively engaging community leaders, issuing messages to its distribution network and playing a key role as the liaison point for community coordination,’ he said.
‘Translators are onsite and will be door-knocking to help explain the directions and understand the individual assistance tenants might need.
‘In order to support residents, the Government will provide food and essential supplies, healthcare and mental health services. Deliveries of activity boxes for kids including crayons, Lego and puzzle books have already begun.
‘A dedicated hotline has also been established to make sure help is available when and where it’s needed.’
When recently speaking with newsGP about his reservations over the idea of enforced borders amid the pandemic, Associate Professor Mark Morgan, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care (REC–QC), called it a ‘very problematic approach’.
But he believes GPs’ unique skillset makes them vitals to such efforts to contain the spread, in terms of providing clinical services and delivering clear health advice.  
‘GPs know their communities. They have clinical information systems that can identify the vulnerable [and] GPs can support and help interpret and personalise public health messaging,’ he said.
‘GPs can also help manage some of the secondary consequences of the pandemic by identifying people with unstable chronic disease, mental health concerns or people at risk of domestic violence.
‘These are vital roles that should be recognised as essential during any outbreaks of COVID-19.’
One resident of the towers said most people who live in them are aware of the potential to spread the virus and have been trying to isolate, but the high-density nature of the living situation makes that difficult.
‘It’s still down to the elevators, which are shared, our laundry, which is shared, and even where put our rubbish, there’s a handle that we all have to keep touching to lift,’ she said. ‘So it was going to go around the flats.
‘I am glad that we’re trying to limit it as much as possible but … I am not sure how they are going to handle this because this is the first time it happens here.
‘Are we going to go through this every three or four weeks? Because that’s going to drive us insane.’

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Dr Ian Mark Light   7/07/2020 10:59:01 AM

There is a need to allow safe interaction .
The knowledge that spread of COVID 19 in the outdoors together with physical distancing and mask protection is very rare ought allow people to shop and exercise within health and safety principles.