I’m taking a break from looking after my kids when the phone rings. It’s my father. He tells me to turn on the news. “The premier is talking about your building. They’re putting you under hard lockdown. They say you won’t be able to leave.” That’s when I look out the window and see the police forming up and taking over the grounds. On Facebook, my friends are asking: how will people get food and medical help? Nobody knows.
I live in a Flemington public housing high-rise with my young family: me, our two boys aged three and five, and their mother and co-parent, Emel. Like any family, we need food, medication, supplies for our kids. And we need a way to answer our children’s questions about what's going to happen. We need all that, even if a lockdown is necessary for public health. But in the "hard lockdown", organised by police instead of public health workers, we have had none of that for days.
The spread of coronavirus into the flats was totally foreseeable. At the start of pandemic, one of my building’s elevators went out of action for a scheduled upgrade, so the entire building was restricted to one lift – so when the city went into lockdown to enforce social distancing, residents were all cramming into one lift. It was a few weeks before the other lift was reopened. It was ridiculous. That’s when they gave us our hand sanitiser: it got refilled maybe once every two weeks. Otherwise, there was nothing there – just people potentially spreading the virus by touching the sanitiser dispenser, and getting nothing out of it.
Public housing residents are working class people. Many of us work in frontline industries exposed to the danger: cleaning, driving, working in precarious conditions, unable to refuse shifts or work from home. The inequality and discrimination of our society brought the disease into our homes and helped it spread.
Before the pandemic we had a friendly, supportive community vibe. Children played happily in the building corridors. That all changed as the pandemic set in. Once the hard lockdown began, it got so much worse. These apartments are not designed for human habitation. Ours has no natural light. You need lights on 24/7 even in the middle of summer, in the middle of the day. There’s very little fresh air. Being locked inside the tower without access to the grounds outside is hellish. If it’s necessary, why can’t it be done with support that recognises the dignity of the residents?
Cleaning here is always terrible. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) never sends cleaners in frequently enough. There are not enough cleaners working on too many floors. Until a couple of days ago, we’ve only had one full scrubbing-down of the corridors since the pandemic began. The cleaners, in their rush, only have time to pat down windows a little and move on. It’s not their fault – but a building like this needs serious investment in cleaning and sanitation.
After a day of hard lockdown, Emel writes a statement for the public:
"With the lockdown since March, we have no access to outdoor space. There is no balcony to get a breath of fresh air... They provided us with hand sanitiser on the ground floor, but more often than not, it is empty and it can go days without a refill. Now we are told not to leave our homes, yet we share a laundry with the rest of the residents on our floor... I am constantly fighting to protect my boys and their mental health and development, but with no access to outside it becomes an impossible task. Of a night, I study, but by day I am a caregiver. To live in this building in normal times is difficult. With the coronavirus it has been very hard, and this hard lockdown is a total nightmare."
On the third day of the hard lockdown, Daniel Andrews issues a statement boasting that every household in the towers has received a bread and milk delivery, that 3,000 meals have been delivered, that children have been given toys. It's a pack of lies.
Meals weren't delivered: they were dumped in the foyer and residents were told to travel down the elevators, supposedly a major infection danger, to collect it. Every household has received bread and milk? My family has received nothing! Children have received toys? Again, nothing.
I need medicine for glaucoma. If I don't take it every day, my optic nerves may be damaged. I asked for it on Sunday – day two – at one o'clock in the afternoon. At nine o'clock on Sunday night we got our first communication from the police when we were served our “detention directions”, addressed broadly to the entire tower. Now on day three, and five telephone calls I've learned I'll go without eyedrops for another night. I asked for bananas, bread, cheese, and milk. During the last call I was told that it won't be possible: we should just wait for our care package, which will arrive some time today. At five o'clock in the evening, we're still waiting.
The food finally arrives after fifty hours of lockdown.
My son was already in quarantine before the lockdown began, due to a potential exposure. He's due for the test you’re required to get after ten days. But we're in "hard lockdown", which seems to be the only place in Melbourne that you can't get a coronavirus test. They've just told us he'll have to wait until they get around to our apartment.
And my medication? My pharmacist is ready to deliver my medication to the building through a courier, but the Department of Health won't confirm that it can be passed on to me. At five o'clock on Sunday evening I was promised that a doctor would call me to get the ball rolling. But we've heard nothing since.
Late on day four the eyedrops arrive – 52 hours after I requested them. That’s thanks to the pharmacist who spent time on the phone trying to confirm the delivery, and some workers in the DHHS who went out of their way to personally ensure the eyedrops were collected. They come along with some gifts for the kids. There are many people in these buildings with more serious medical conditions than me.
As day five dawns, things are more organised: the blaring PA orders residents to return to their apartments, as the food is being delivered. The orders only come in English. We still have no word about testing in our building. My son is upset that school has been cancelled again, but he accepts that it's a good idea to help stop the spread of the virus. He hates home learning.
My tower block is a community that’s predominantly refugees, immigrants and Indigenous people. Many of them are no stranger to state barbarity, and some have been detained more than enough already, having traversed Australia’s inhuman detention regime for refugees, or having experienced Australia’s appalling treatment of the First Nations people.
The same police now locking us up were the ones we saw defending the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when residents and anti-racists protested his speaking tour. He spoke across the road at the Melbourne Pavilion, and the police defended that venue and his Australian fascist supporters – but later, they brutalised the kids from here in the towers, as they continued their protest late into the night. I have witnessed systematic racial profiling and police harassment of residents – even the tasering of a young African man in front of my kids in a playground on the estate, after which police pinned him down in a style reminiscent of the worst incidents brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fighting this pandemic needs an open, transparent and scientific approach. Subjecting us to a police blockade has nothing to do with tackling the spread of the disease. Locking the residents in the tower with known positive cases of the coronavirus can create the conditions for the virus to spread. I would suggest that communicating which towers have cases and bringing in health workers, cleaners, social workers to assist in a health crisis would have been a more effective strategy, one that wouldn’t have impinged on our human rights.
If there were any justice, both the state and federal governments would be sacked over this. Their negligence has let this disruptive, harmful and lethal virus escape control. I wish the solicitors well who are bringing a class action against the State Government for our unlawful imprisonment.