Community-led response ‘essential’ to deal with pandemic

Hope Mathumbu.

Public health worker and nurse Hope Mathumbu was one of several people to give a first-hand account of the Victorian government’s mismanagement of the hard lockdown of the housing estates in an online forum initiated by Socialist Alliance Moreland councillor Sue Bolton on July 11.

Titled “Covid-19 Response — Healthcare and Justice not Racism”, the forum attracted more than 100 people. Other speakers were Kazim Shah, an organiser with the United Workers Union (UWU), Walid, a UWU member, Mohamed Ahmed, a resident from one of the Flemington public housing estates, and Mohsin Umar from the Fawkner Muslim community.

The forum was originally initiated to give a platform to migrants and the Muslim community who have been scapegoated for the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Victoria. But as the hard lockdown had also taken place, it was also a chance to hear from some of those directly affected by it.

Mathumbu has been involved in frontline COVID-19 testing efforts, including at quarantine hotels. She gave details of the weaknesses of the government’s public health response, the mishandling at the quarantine hotels and the lack of personal protection equipment for workers. She reported that even she was not able to get a test for the virus on site, despite coming into close contact with someone who was positive.

Mathumbu said it was essential the community be given more of a role in coordinating the public health response to COVID-19. This is because “it’s the community that has done the best job, that the government hasn’t really thought of, throughout this entire crisis”.

Security guard and UWU member Walid, who blew the whistle on the quarantine hotels’ mishandling of the pandemic, argued that the critical issue was not the individual guards but the sub-contractors. By not having to pay for properly training guards, they were not taking enough precautions and profiting at the same time, he said.

Walid continued, saying that the same sub-contractors were not guaranteeing sick leave, proper wages or superannuation to the security guards. He also described how sub-contractors frequently bully and mistreat migrant workers, who do not have many other employment options.

UWU organiser Shah criticised the corporate media’s efforts to pin the COVID-19 outbreak onto individuals. “They’re trying to blame the guards. Again, it is not the guards’ fault that they were put into harm’s way. You have to make sure that all the workers, and all the security guards, are protected. The actual issue is with the security companies. I hope they open their books, and they open their balance sheets, and [we] find out who got paid money out of this.”

Ahmed, one of 3000 people who had to go into hard lockdown, strongly criticised how it was done. He pointed to the lack of preparation, including the inadequacy of hand sanitiser supplies for the towers’ residents. “There was no safety for the people in the towers,” he said.

Umar, a member of the Muslim Information Network of Australia, said attempts to pin the blame for the virus outbreak on the Muslim community are similar to how the Cholera pandemic in the 19th century was blamed on Irish migrants. He said this type of racism needs to be condemned.

Bolton said that any effective public health response to the pandemic has to be based on healthcare and justice, not discrimination. “Discrimination breaks down the sort of collective response we need to combat the pandemic,” she said. “The victimisation of groups on the basis of ethnicity, class, socioeconomic status or housing status will undermine a good public health response,” she concluded.

[Sue Bolton is running for re-election to the Moreland City Council. Join the Sue Bolton Moreland Team campaign meeting on Saturday, July 25 at 2pm on zoom here or get in touch with the campaign here.]

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