*** This article was updated on 6 July with additional tweets and statements from the health sector ***
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has called for a pause in the easing of COVID-19 restrictions across Australia following further dramatic lockdowns in Melbourne and amid grave concerns for residents of nine public housing towers who went into ‘hard lockdown’ on Saturday, without notice and under police guard.
In the harshest lockdown so far in Australia during the pandemic, more than 3,000 residents of the public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne are not permitted to leave their apartments for any reason, including for food, work, exercise or to provide care to others for at least five days.
The Victorian Council of Social Service said it understood the lockdown of such an at risk group of people was a public health decision, but given levels of health and social vulnerability among many residents, it needed to be done right, proportionately and with sensitivity.
“If we get this wrong, the consequences will be horrific,” warned VCOSS CEO Emma King, as other legal, social and health advocates questioned the lack of notice and deployment late yesterday of about 500 police to the towers in Melbourne’s inner north and north-west.
“Last night looked a bit like a crime scene,” King told media on Sunday, saying it would have been far better to see nurses, social services and community members leading the response.
Others (see tweets below, and at the bottom of the post) have warned that many residents of the public housing towers, who include Aboriginal people, refugees and people who have experienced chronic mental health issues and homelessness, will be vulnerable in the lockdown, including those who have been subject to past police brutality or over-policing.
Victorian Council for Civil Liberties urged the Government to act with fewer police and more social workers, nurses, drug and alcohol clinicians and mental health support, warning “this is a tinderbox and police could be the match”.
In a statement headed ‘Overcrowding + Pandemic was always a disaster waiting to happen’, the Council to Homeless Persons, Victoria’s peak homelessness body, said the risks that crowded housing poses is “far broader than these nine towers,” saying 35,000 Victorians, and 4.4 per cent of households in public housing, live in housing that is crowded or has shared facilities, like bathrooms, laundries and kitchens”.
Melbourne’s worrying outbreak of the coronavirus over the past week is being felt across some of the city’s lower socio-economic suburbs and pockets, where many live with housing stress and precarious work and incomes.
Concerns are growing also for others living in crowded conditions and closed settings, including prisons, and for refugees and asylum seekers living in immigration detention facilities, among them nearly 100 refugees who have been protesting their conditions and risks during the pandemic at the Mantra Bell City hotel on the edge of Melbourne hotspots.
Rent relief, hardship payments announced
Premier Daniel Andrews announced the dramatic lockdown on Saturday afternoon, along with stay-at-home orders for two more Melbourne postcode areas, on top of the 10 postcode lockdowns affecting another 300,000 residents earlier this week.
He acknowledged the public housing tower lockdown would be “traumatic” but said Melbourne was on a “knife’s edge”, and that the coronavirus can “spread like wildfire” in the large apartment blocks because of their close confines and shared community spaces.
On Sunday, Andrews said Royal Melbourne Hospital staff will be onsite at both public housing estates to “ensure every resident can get tested”. He announced a range of other support measures, including that the State Government will provide food and essential supplies, health care and mental health services and that tenants will be given two weeks of rent relief.
“Recognising the financial burden the lockdown will place on many estate residents, a $750 hardship payment will be provided to affected households,” he said, adding that those who get tested will have their payments fast tracked.
As well, he said:
- The Victorian Multicultural Commission is actively engaging community leaders, issuing messages to its distribution network and playing a key role as the liaison point for community coordination.
- Translators are onsite and will be doorknocking to help explain the directions and understand the individual assistance tenants might need.
- Activity boxes for kids including crayons, Lego and puzzle books are being delivered.
- A dedicated hotline has also been established.
Warning to other states, territories
AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said the new outbreaks in Melbourne called for a temporary pause in the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in all states and territories, saying the spikes in new cases in Victoria were “a stark reminder that the battle against COVID is far from over, and that we all need to learn to live with the virus in our community.”
They were a warning for all Australians how quickly virus outbreaks can occur anywhere in the country and a “stark reality check of how rapidly things can change,” he said.
“The disappointing reality is that the problems in Melbourne’s hotspots are directly linked to failures to follow established and successful public health guidelines,” he said, pointing to breaches of infection control in the mandatory hotel quarantine program, now subject to judicial review in Victoria, and “irresponsible actions from elite sportsmen”.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) is yet to issue a statement following its emergency meeting last night.
Melbourne’s worrying outbreak intensified over the past week as the world reached an “historic and calamitous milestone” of 10 million cases of COVID-19 and over 500,000 deaths, according to a Lancet editorial.
Calling for an Emergency Special Sessions of the UN General Assembly to examine responses to the pandemic, the editor of The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, said the world’s political leaders have been tested on the coronavirus and “been found wanting”.
“It’s hard to recall a more lamentable response to a global emergency,” he said.
Update on 6 July
Read more here.
Read more from VACCHO here.
Statement by Victorian branch, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (5 July)
With around 3,000 of Melbourne’s residents will be locked in nine public housing estates for at least five days due to a coronavirus outbreak the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (RANZCP) Victorian Branch is urging the government to provide mental health support for these vulnerable communities.
Dr Kerryn Rubin, Chair of the RANZCP Victorian Branch, explains that whilst the need for this strong public health response to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases is understood, it remains vital that the mental health and emotional wellbeing of this community remain at the forefront of the government’s priorities.
‘The existential threat and anxiety of living within a ‘hotspot’, possibly already infected by the coronavirus will be compounded by the impacts of social isolation and the loss of usual social supports (both informal and formal) with this mandatory lockdown’, said Dr Rubin.
‘In this context we have great concern for all of the residents of the hard lockdown buildings, who now find themselves without the freedom of movement, and stuck living in close quarters with numerous other people.
‘For some of these residents this necessary lockdown may still trigger previous traumatic experiences.
This time will be immensely difficult for those already experiencing or more vulnerable to developing mental ill health. The mental health and community impacts of mandatory lockdown present significant risks for those affected.
‘These include depression and anxiety, increased alcohol and other drug use, domestic violence, and the relapse or worsening of pre-existing conditions’, explained Dr Rubin.
‘It is vital that the public health response is accompanied by social supports, drug and alcohol services, and mental health supports.
‘These need to aim at prevention wherever possible, as well as support and treat emerging or pre-existing issues.
‘The Victorian Branch continues to support frontline health workers and offer our support and expertise to the organisations currently involved in supporting these vulnerable members of our community, at this particularly trying time for them.’
If you need help right now, it is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anywhere in Australia.
In an emergency, dial 000
Lifeline 24-hour crisis – 131 114
Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800
Beyond Blue – 1800 512 348
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Statement from the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health Executive Director, Adele Murdolo
MCWH is extremely concerned about the health and wellbeing of migrant communities, particularly migrant women in the 11 ‘hot zone’ suburbs under Stage 3 restrictions, and public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne under lockdown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected migrant women and their access to support services. They have been hardest hit by job and income losses, while taking on the lion’s share of responsibility for caring, housework and family support. They are at higher risk of family violence and social isolation, yet are less likely to have access to the information, support and services they need.
Throughout the crisis, the provision of multilingual information and support to migrant women has been manifestly inadequate. MCWH has strongly advocated for migrant women’s leadership in the prevention of COVID-19 transmissions. There is a need for trained peer health educators to positively engage communities with tailored, accurate and multilingual information and support. This type of support has never been more important.
While the Victorian government has engaged multicultural community leaders over the last month, women community leaders have been overlooked. It is time to listen to migrant women about their experiences and needs to ensure that they can access specific support throughout this crisis. Migrant women’s leadership is crucial to an effective, community-based, preventative response to the pandemic.
We are calling on the Victorian Government to meet with, and listen to, migrant women and their representative organisations, and to recognise their central role in multicultural community leadership. Migrant women’s organisations should be supported to reach out to migrant women who live in the designated ‘hot zones’ and high-density public housing across Victoria with multilingual information, support and services and to play a central role in strengthening the community response to COVID-19.
Organisations endorsing this statement:
- Women’s Health Victoria
- Women’s Health Grampians
- Women’s Health Goulburn North East
- Queen Victoria Women’s Centre
- Associate Professor Cathy Vaughan, University of Melbourne
- Women’s Health in the North
- Gender Equity Victoria
- Women’s Health Lodden Mallee
- Gippsland Women’s Health