There is currently a localised epidemic of COVID in the state of Victoria, Australia, centring on a number of suburbs of the state capital, Melbourne. In a country that has successfully flattened the curve since an initially confused response in March, these new cases (some 100 a days in the last week) indicate how long the tail of the first wave is, and how much effort is required to achieve national elimination.
From a process of opening up schools and business, the Victorian government has had to lock things down again, albeit with a postcode-based approach to hotspots in the city. In an otherwise pretty grounded and clear strategy the state government sealed of 9 public housing tower blocks on Saturday 4 July with no notice to the residents. 3000 residents of the social housing towers were ordered not to leave their apartments and issued ‘detention notices’ for 5 days. The blocks were surrounded by 500 police officers sent to enforce the hard lockdown measures. All food is being supplied to residents and they have a state funded rent holiday of two weeks. Those working are to be offered $1500 per week, and those unemployed $750. All residents will be required to undertake mandatory testing. We are in unchartered waters here.
Many residents have been interviewed about the conditions of the lockdown and the shocking and instant nature of the detention orders. No notice was given and many faced shortages of food, medicines and baby milk, and some feel as if the police presence has criminalised them for no ostensible reason. To be sure positive COVID cases were emerging in some of the towers, but not all. The laundries in many of the tower blocks are communal, and there are no balconies available.
Many of the residents are socially marginalised, with that being precisely the nature of the social housing scheme. There are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, the disabled and those suffering psychological problems. Access to treatment or therapy will be problematic, and many are predicting the lockdown will be for longer than 5 days. Communications with these residents has been poorly handled. The initial ‘detention orders’ were a five page printed leaflet delivered in English, and various briefings on the tv by the state premier and others have also not been translated. The presence of so many armed police to establish the cordon sanitaire is also highly problematic, and probably particularly frightening to asylum seekers. The federal Chief Medical Officer also went public and described the towers as ‘vertical cruise ships’ ripe for unfettered infection unless the measures were taken. While this may be true, the language could not have been helpful or calming for those locked down.
It is also quite apparent that the tower blocks are not the only apartments in the immediate neighbourhoods. Other private residences have not been closed off. It is clear that things could have been handled in a far more humane and rights-based fashion, with a more sympathetic and culturally appropriate intervention that put clear messaging alongside trust in the population. The state is struggling to keep a lid on its epidemic and has gone in hard. From a public health perspective I am torn between my own support of lockdown measures to prevent infection and to buy time for testing, and the need to treat people with respect and without stigma, particularly if their crime is poverty and marginalisation. As the pandemic proceeds with long tails and second waves it seems imperative that there is public dialogue and understanding of what may be instituted to control the spread, people need to understand and be involved in the nature of potential future responses. People need agency in the pandemic, notwithstanding the need for emergency measures in the future. This can all be conducted more humanely and with dignity and rights squarely in collective efforts.