Residents of the nine Melbourne public housing towers formerly under strict, police-controlled lockdown have been left traumatised and at risk of self-harm, fearful of going outside and without support or proper sanitation, one says.
Mohamed, a resident of a tower at 33 Alfred Street in North Melbourne and a support coordinator for his building, said nothing had changed in the towers since they come out of hard lockdown.
Residents were terrified of becoming infected with Covid-19 after the buildings were described by Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, as “vertical cruise ships”, Mohamed said, and many no longer felt safe, with lifts and communal areas still lacking basic sanitisation.
He said he had personally come to the aid of people attempting self-harm.
“A couple of coordinators like myself have had major breakdowns,” he said. “A good friend of mine lives in the towers and he is a youth worker who tested positive, and is now in hotel quarantine.
“The kids in the towers are calling him [in distress], even from quarantine he’s trying to help them. It’s crazy, it’s scary, and the Department of Health still can’t guarantee to us the buildings are safe.”
A spokeswoman for Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services said mental health support was always available for anyone in the community feeling isolated or vulnerable. “We made sure mental health clinicians and support workers were onsite at public housing estates to reach out to anyone at risk of mental health issues who needed support, make referrals for further treatment and prescribe medication, as well as providing support over the phone through the Inner North coronavirus response line,” she said.
“We’ve provided a $59.4m coronavirus mental health package with essential, tailored support for young public housing tenants, asylum seekers, refugees, temporary migrants and vulnerable culturally and linguistically diverse groups.”
Guardian Australia understands that the department will be making more announcements in coming days on mental health support as Victoria moves to tougher restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. The health department has been working with the coroners court of Victoria to closely monitor suspected suicides across the state during the coronavirus pandemic, and there has been no increase in the frequency of suspected suicides in Victoria to date.
I’ve been using triage here I was taught to use in war zonesMohamed
Mohamed said mental health issues in the towers had been exacerbated by the announcement by the premier, Daniel Andrews, on Sunday that Melbourne would enter stage-four restrictions, with people under curfew between 8pm and 5am for six weeks. When a police-enforced lockdown of the nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington took effect in early July, the government was criticised for failing to communicate with residents in their languages beforehand, and for the police response.
The Victorian ombudsman has launched an inquiry into the lockdown, including examining the way it was communicated to residents and enforced, and whether human rights breaches occurred.
But Mohamed said nothing had been learned from that lockdown when it came to announcing the city-wide stage-four restrictions: “I woke up today to 50 missed calls and messages from residents asking about the stage four and what it means.”
Eva Hussain, a translator and interpreter and director of Polaron Language Services in Melbourne, said that once again residents of the towers had been left to translate the information from the premier’s press conference and disseminate it among themselves. This also occurred after the hard lockdown of the towers was announced in July.
“The announcement made by the premier yesterday was shocking to everyone but there are about 2 million Victorians who speak a language other than English at home,” she said. “And that is a very high percentage. A lot of people had no idea what was going on.”
She said while information was eventually made available in multiple languages on the health department website, she had asked the office of the chief health minister to add subtitles and translation to the key parts of press conferences, and to roll out those videos across social media and non-English news channels.
“People are taking things into their own hands,” she said. “There are volunteer translators and people communicating through WhatsApp, but it’s not their job and it shouldn’t be on them to do that. I’m an ex-refugee, I’m an immigrant, I know these people and they are real, they are isolated at home, and they are worried and wanting to do the right thing.”
She said she was concerned that volunteer translators, while trying to do the right thing, may not always translate the most important information or do so correctly.
“Everyone wants to be compliant,” Hussain said. “When we talk about ethnic and multicultural communities, people will do the right thing, but they need to know what the right thing is and what it all means. If you have poor info and it’s not coming through fast enough, they are taking matters into their own hands – and messaging can get confused in that process.”
Daniel Reeders, a health promotion expert with experience working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Melbourne, said Victoria was still not doing enough to prevent further infections.
“Cleaning companies with causal workers are working to targets and have to do a cursory job of the cleaning in the towers to meet those targets, and I’m aware of community members seeing this and raising it and not getting a response,” he said.
“And then a curfew coming into effect on the same day as the press conference, with no equivalent media outreach for residents in towers and other linguistically diverse communities, is concerning.”
Mohamed said all the hand-sanitiser dispensers in the towers needed to be replaced because the department had found them to be faulty. There were no infection control measures in laundry areas that had been reopened, he said.
He had asked the department several times for its infection risk management plans but had received no response.
“I spent a year and a bit working in aid overseas,” he said. “We did things overseas I never thought I’d do in Australia. But I’ve been using triage here I was taught to use in war zones. And I’m using those wartime strategies on residents in the middle of Melbourne.
“We are treated like we know nothing, like we need things done to us or we won’t comply. But we know about infection control. I’ve seen what infectious diseases like malaria can do. I have family overseas who have had it. But no one gives a shit about us. The rest of Victoria is experiencing a small fraction of what we have been facing.
“We are all breaking down in here. None of us sleep any more. I can no longer look at ceilings because I stared at the ceiling in lockdown so much. I was told I wasn’t allowed outside for fresh air. My window opened about six inches.
“And now we still have infected people in here but we don’t know if communal areas are safe, and those people who are infected are still locked down, some of them for more than a month while it spreads through their whole family, and they and their kids have not been outside. Some of those kids have autism or disability.
“I’ve seen journalists on Twitter say to us, ‘Thank god you have the Victorian government and you’re not in America’; thanking the Victorian government for their approach, when we have been treated like uncivilised animals without human rights.”
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; MensLine Australia 1300 789 978; Beyond Blue 1300 224 636