Police presence at Melbourne towers was 'dehumanising', infectious disease doctor says

Melissa Davey
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: David Crosling/AAP</span>
Photograph: David Crosling/AAP

An infectious diseases doctor seconded by Victoria’s health department to work in the nine public housing towers placed under hard lockdown is “furious” about the way residents were treated, arguing the police presence at the towers was “deeply dehumanising” and tenants’ expertise was never harnessed.

Some 3,000 public housing residents living in nine tower block estates in the Melbourne suburbs of Flemington and North Melbourne were placed into “hard lockdown” on 4 July, with some residents only learning about it as 400 police officers swept into the towers at the same time the premier, Daniel Andrews, made the announcement. The measure was in response to a cluster of Covid-19 cases in some of the towers.

Related: ‘A completely different world’: the rich and resilient communities inside Melbourne’s towers

Dr Chris Lemoh was employed by the health department to help respond to the towers outbreak. His contract with the department concluded last week, meaning he is now able to speak publicly for the first time.

“The residents have really good practical experience of living through and responding to diseases, their expertise is very valuable, but they’re not consulted when we make plans and strategies that directly affect them,” Lemoh told Guardian Australia.

“I didn’t find that changed in my time there. I’m furious. It’s just so frustrating.”

Lemoh said people facing the biggest barriers to equitable participation and inclusion in society bore the brunt of disease.

“You had this huge response with police everywhere, apparently to protect ‘vulnerable people’ who are in fact actually very capable people living in a vulnerable environment, that they themselves had been asking to be fixed for a long time before the pandemic,” he said.

“Then, suddenly, they were treated as though they were helpless and a problem for everyone, rather than as capable people with a solution.”

Lemoh has decades of experience working in refugee and immigrant health. His early years working in the sector were eye-opening, he said. When he worked on a project on HIV prevention with West African migrant communities in Australia more than a decade ago, a lot of his own misconceptions were shattered. The work involved interviewing African Australians involved in women’s health, youth groups, drug and alcohol groups and maternity care, and asking them about how someone exposed to HIV might access support and what a diagnosis might mean for their lives.

“Those interviews changed my entire perception of medicine,” Lemoh said. “It made me realise I knew very little about people’s lives. I had all these stereotypes in my head and I learned to listen, realised I didn’t know anything, and that the only way to know was to ask people directly. It changed my way of practising.

“You become institutionalised as a health professional and you can lose touch with the reality for people receiving the service unless you have a regular way of checking in.”

This is why Lemoh was disturbed by the police-first approach taken by the Victorian government when responding to the towers outbreaks. He does not accept the argument that the government needed to act fast.

“It depends when you start the clock,” he said. “If you start it from when Covid-19 began, that’s December. If you start from when we started taking it more seriously in Australia, that’s February. Certainly back then, people in this community were asking questions about what they needed to do to secure their environment and be safe. There was ample time for consultation and discussion.”

Related: 'My daughter wants to be a doctor': young migrants in Melbourne's high-rises face a bright future

Lemoh does not believe sending in the police or announcing a lockdown to the residents at the same time it was being enforced helped keep residents or the broader community safer, encouraged testing, or facilitated information-sharing.

“Having police there didn’t help at all,” he said. The doctor was also concerned by how quickly the wider community accepted and endorsed the police presence.

“Those living in the towers are people with their own minds suddenly being treated as mobile objects that need to be controlled. It’s deeply obscene, offensive and dehumanising. More importantly, history shows us it does not work,” Lemoh said.

“Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of all of this is that when the residents themselves have all of the facts and information, they actually want to do all of the right things, they actually know the importance of infection control, and they want to do all they can to protect themselves and others – and yet we seemingly just accept that they need policing to get to that point.”

Many of the residents worked as health workers, for aid organisations, or in aged care either in Australia or other countries, Lemoh said. Best practice would have been to work with them to find out what concerns people had and how residents were accessing information about the virus. They could then assist the government to target the response to the outbreaks.

It was not good enough to assume residents would be watching a daily press conference and understand all the information, Lemoh said.

“We are talking about people who have been cattle herders and nomads and who have a good understanding about how people relate to each other and what politics looks like on the ground,” Lemoh said. “In the same family you’ll have an engineer, a doctor, a high-level public servant or a small business owner. They are every walk of life.

“All they have in common is they moved to another country and made a new life in a system that is very hostile to outsiders. That hostility may not always be the get-in-your-face type. But it is hostile in a way that says: ‘We don’t recognise your qualifications. We don’t accept the university in this other country is a good one.’ Because of that, we are missing out on so much talent.”

Lemoh said because authorities didn’t listen to people who didn’t “look the right way” the response was divorced from reality.

“The pandemic plan isn’t a bad plan in theory, but to make it work you need people to understand it and go along with it. Without that, it’s like the oil is missing from the machine,” he said.

On 17 July, Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass announced an investigation into the treatment of public housing residents in response to concerns there was poor access to medical supplies, exercise and fresh air, and that other everyday needs were not being met.

Related: 'A lot of the kids are struggling': how Covid-19 has changed life in Melbourne's towers

“People on the frontline are doing an extraordinary job to respond to this crisis and help keep us safe,” Glass said at the time. “However, there are lessons to be learned in how governments can do that in a way that protects people’s human rights.” Her investigation is ongoing.

Lemoh said although there was much to be desired about the government’s response, he loved working with tower residents. The system frustrated him but the tenants did not.

“I got to speak with those in public housing, including bicultural professionals with fantastic insights about the current system, and a whole lot of people with creative, brilliant minds who see the potential in this to make society better,” he said.

“So yes, I’m tired. I’m angry. But I’m also very happy.”