Millions of people in the Australian city of Melbourne have been warned the epidemic peak may still be ahead, as they endure a fresh lockdown amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases. Neighbouring states have closed their borders over fears of contagion.
One of nine high-density public housing towers that was placed under sudden lockdown on Saturday is to remain quarantined – a measure enforced by police guards – after dozens of infections were recorded.
Food and supply packages are being delivered to the tower, in a working class neighbourhood north of the city centre, with residents permitted to leave their apartments only for medical care or supervised exercise.
The rest of the city – including eight other towers whose 3,000 residents were also under hard lockdown until virus tests this week came back clear – is now under “stage three” stay-at-home orders.
Nearly five million inhabitants of greater Melbourne may only leave their homes for essential shopping, work or medical reasons, including exercise, for the next six weeks. Meanwhile school holidays have been extended while authorities assess the situation.
With health protocols and social distancing measures already established during the first coronavirus lockdown in March, Melburnians know the drill. For the inhabitants of the public housing towers, however, many of whom are immigrants and speak English as a second language, the reimposed restrictions have been challenging.
Anxiety, confusion and anger quickly erupted on Saturday when tenants of the nine towers were suddenly forbidden from leaving their homes at all, says Girmay Mengesha, who has lived in one of the towers since immigrating to Australia from Ethiopia in 2005.
“The way we found out about the hard lockdown was through a text or call from the Department of Health,” Mengesha told RFI. “We were not given any warning or time to prepare ourselves… The first thing we saw were the 500 police who had been sent to our area.
“We were so upset. Why send in police instead of nurses, social workers or interpreters to help the community understand what's going on?”
When deliveries of food and other supplies were delayed, the surrounding communities stepped in with donations of necessities such as milk, bread, nappies and baby formula – also offering emotional support. Engagement from the community “has made us strong”, Mengesha says.
The Housing Minister for the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, has admitted that some of the population’s most vulnerable people live in the nine towers, where at least 159 Covid-19 cases have so far been confirmed.
Despite logging a record number of virus infections – almost 1,700 in the past month – Victoria’s epidemic peak may not yet have arrived, says the state’s chief health officer Brett Sutton, who expects even more cases will be found in the tower that remains under police guard.
"We need to recognise there might be 20 to 25 percent of individuals in that particular tower who end up developing coronavirus, and potentially more," Sutton said.
Victoria’s coronavirus spike risks deepening Australia’s first recession in almost three decades, and it comes as the state government rolls out a support package for businesses worth almost half a billion US dollars.
With the reimposed lockdown thwarting national hopes of opening all state borders by the end of July, some residents say they’re more worried about the economy than they are about getting sick.
“Many business who had only just gotten back on their feet have now had the rug pulled out from under them,” says Michelle, a pharmaceutical worker who is in lockdown with her husband and young children in one of Melbourne’s inner city suburbs.
“Cafes and restaurants that had reopened and were fully booked every night now have to revert back to take-away service…everything’s gone completely backwards again.”