I am not sure which is the more terrifying: the idea that the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, had sufficient evidence to justify locking up about 3,000 of my neighbours, or the idea that he didn’t and was doing it anyway.
Last Saturday, shortly after 4pm, Andrews announced that the public housing tenants of Flemington and North Melbourne were to be detained in forced quarantine because of potentially high rates of Covid-19. They would be prohibited from leaving their homes for any reason.
A sudden shock will send your fingers numb. I was watching the press conference on television. I grabbed my phone and ran the two blocks to the Flemington estate.
The police were already there. As dusk fell I began to take photographs of massed police cars, the flashing blue lights, the armed officers stopping people trying to leave the towers, and residents of the estate making their way home and asking: “What’s happened?” “What have we done wrong?” “Has there been a murder?”
The public housing towers are part of the rhythm of my suburb. There are the kids clattering up the hill to the high schools, and the constant traffic in the main street to and from the African cafes.
I can see the towers of the Flemington estate from my living room window. The lights in individual flats, blinking off, prompt me to my own bedtime. Sometimes if I rise in the night, I can see that someone over there is also awake.
I am not part of the public housing community. I am one of the middle-class white people literally and metaphorically at the top of the hill. But these are my neighbours.
On the estates, one in five people have no English, or poor English. The main languages are Vietnamese and Somali, as well as Ethiopian languages such as Amharic, Tigrunya and Oroimo. Arabic is common, as is Cantonese. Many of the residents are refugees from war-torn countries, predominantly in Africa. Unemployment is high.
And now, without warning, they were locked up by government.
‘We have no surge capacity in caring’
The police, it emerged, had only about an hour and a half’s notice of the lockdown. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the lead agency managing the lockdown, had about the same warning.
The two local governments – City of Melbourne and Moonee Valley city council – had no warning, and nor did the community leaders on the estate.
Ever since the coronavirus crisis began, these leaders had been asking the health department for a plan. They wrote emails and made phone calls asking for hand sanitiser on every floor, regular deep cleaning of lifts and shared spaces, and public health information posted in multiple languages.
Bottles of sanitiser were placed in the foyers, but when they ran out they were not replaced. Otherwise, there was no visible response.
Now the community depended for its most basic needs on the same department which they routinely experience as deaf to their voices.
And that department was responsible, with next to no warning, for provisioning a vulnerable community the size of a small town, vertically stacked.
Among the residents, shock at the sudden and heavy police presence was universal, but there was also some relief that the emerging Covid-19 crisis, which they had been uneasily aware of, was at last attracting serious government attention. Yet there were no health workers, social workers or health department employees in the first wave of government action.
As one frustrated department employee said to me later, there are no standing armies of health workers and social workers. “We have no surge capacity in caring.” If you need an emergency response, you have either the army or the police.
In the African Australian community, there were angry people who did not believe the public health justification for the lockdown and saw the operation as a racially motivated act of oppression.
One resident of the Flemington estate, Melissa Whelan, got the text telling her about the lockdown when she was in the checkout queue at the supermarket. Short on cash, she had popped out for milk and bread with a budget of $7. She rapidly rang a friend, borrowed another $50 and stocked up.
Other households were not so quick or lucky. These tend to be big and young families, living week to week. Those who had planned to shop on Sunday soon ran short of food.
By Sunday morning, there were a few DHHS workers on the estate, dispatched at no notice and with no clear directions. The police were still in charge, and there were hundreds of them.
The DHHS and other agencies struggled with the implications of the premier’s promise that this vulnerable community would be supported with “wraparound” services. To start with, they could barely keep it fed.
The “basics boxes” the government delivered in the first day of lockdown contained date-expired food, Weetbix without milk, jam without bread. They were stacked in the foyers while the DHHS worked out how to get them safely up the towers.
Calls went out from those inside the flats to friends and relations, desperately asking for grocery deliveries and, in some cases, medication.
Local federal and state MPs – Greens and Labor – devoted their staff to trying to fill the gaps, escalating emergencies on an ad hoc basis. The premier’s office made a staff member solely available for their calls.
There were people with asthma who had no Ventolin, diabetics without clean needles, mothers of premature babies now isolated from their infants in the nearby Royal Melbourne hospital.
Meanwhile, the African community was rallying, wanting to look after its own. In the forefront were young volunteers from the North Melbourne-based Australian Muslim Social Services Agency Youth Connect (AMSSA) who began soliciting and trying to deliver bags of goods. Others were trying to deliver just to specific family members and friends.
It was chaotic, and made harder by the fact there was no protocol. Police concern for security, and DHHS’s concern for infection control, meant the deliveries were frustrated. Food was left in foyers and on steps, attacked by rats overnight.
The people on the outside were desperate – knocking their heads against a system failing to care for the community, yet prevented from doing the job themselves.
That was the first 48 hours.
‘They are starving our people’
On Monday night, I began to get texts telling me things were going very wrong. Residents looking down from their windows, hoping for deliveries, could see hazmat-clad workers carrying away bags of food. The DHHS infection control officer had knocked off for the day, and so the order went out that deliveries from the community were to be stopped.
The bags being carried away were the food that had been left to spoil overnight, but the combination of events meant that people in the flats believed goods bought for them by family members were being stolen.
“They are starving our people,” one social media post said.
Everyone pitched in. The local MPs hit the phones. I tweeted that it was a mix-up. I got replies saying I was just a lickspittle for racist authorities. The police were heard arguing with the DHHS orders.
I am not sure which part of this effort worked, but the order to prevent deliveries was rapidly reversed, and DHHS issued an apology.
This whole crisis took about 90 minutes to brew, peak and dissipate, but during that time I thought there might be a riot – that the whole situation might slip disastrously out of control. Some police confessed the same fear.
By Tuesday, things were beginning to improve. The emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, was brought in, as were many volunteers, emergency services and local government. Coles repurposed an entire supermarket to the provisioning effort.
It was an immense effort, with many people working ridiculously hard hours, all in the knowledge that they were still in some ways failing.
Pallets of food and supplies were trekked into the estate and up the tiny, decrepit lifts. Nevertheless, that night there was an arrest during another conflict between police and young African-Australian volunteers delivering food.
Meanwhile, the huge effort to test every resident for Covid-19 was underway. In the end, they managed to test 85%.
‘Struggling with institutional somnambulance’
By Wednesday, there was plenty of food – far too much food – and much of it was wasted.
But the help was still generic. MPs and family members were hearing of urgent medical needs and mothers without nappies for their babies. The hotline established for residents had a wait of over an hour to be answered.
One MP described dealing with DHHS as “struggling with institutional somnambulance”, including an inability to realise that more than a nine-to-five effort was needed, and a stark refusal to embrace the efforts by the community to look after its own. Some called for the community to be allowed to run its own hotline.
“It was paternalism,” said another community representative. “The fact that people wanted to help their own was seen as a problem, not a strength.”
Behind the scenes the Labor MPs for the area, Bill Shorten and Danny Pearson, the Trades Hall Council and other Labor groups were pushing a mutually agreed log of claims about what needed to be done to save the state government from “getting this wrong”. The Greens MPs, Ellen Sandell and Adam Bandt, with their colleagues on the Melbourne city council, were pushing a similar message.
Top of the list was arguing for the young people of AMSSA to be taken into the heart of the effort, instead of being resisted and frustrated. By Wednesday morning that was beginning to happen. Protocols for community deliveries were established and the authorities began to cooperate with the community.
By the afternoon, the relief effort was at last adequate and impressive. It was a mighty thing – just three days late. There were dedicated workers on site, consistently identifying individual household needs.
Thursday was intense. Testing had been finished the night before – an immense effort by many health workers. Residents were to be given news of their results, and the future of the lockdown. The premier’s press conference was to be at 11 am, then early afternoon. He finally got to his feet at 4.30pm.
All but one of the towers were to be moved to the same stage 3 restrictions as the rest of Melbourne. Alfred Street, on the North Melbourne estate, with 53 people testing positive, would remain in quarantine for another nine days.
Most significantly, AMSSA would become the host of the continuing work of provisioning Alfred Street. The police minister, Lisa Neville, even thanked them.
That night, the young people of AMSSA posted images of themselves to social media, dancing as they delivered the food parcels.
The Greens have called for an inquiry into the public housing lockdown. It seems inevitable there will be a reckoning – and only that can determine whether such action was justified.
Questions will surely include why there was no planning for this scenario. The state’s pandemic plan, written in 2015, makes no mention of public housing. But surely when the coronavirus crisis began in March, plans could have been made that included consultations with community leaders on the estates.
As Daniel Andrews likes to say, this isn’t over.
Some residents who were not on the estate when the lockdown occurred did not return. About 10% of residents did not open their door to the authorities at any stage during the lockdown, whether from fear or anger.
Almost certainly, more Covid-19 cases will emerge. But lessons have certainly been learned.
Awatif Taha, who told the Guardian her story at the beginning of the crisis, said on Friday afternoon: “Last night we were all screaming with joy.”
Perhaps, she said, the government had learned something about her community, its strength and resourcefulness. Perhaps now they would be heard.