More than 100 people participated in the online forum “Refugees, COVID-19 and the politics of the pandemic”, organised by the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) on July 27.
Professor Jaya Dantas, representing the Public Health Association of Australia, said that public health measures, such as distancing and hygiene, are very difficult in the crowded environment of a detention centre. Disease can also be brought into the centre by the guards.
Moz, a refugee detained in the Mantra Hotel in Preston, spoke of the very stressful situation inside. One of the guards who had worked at the Mantra had tested positive for COVID-19.
Forty staff work there every day, and another 40 every night. Refugees are afraid to walk in the narrow corridors in close proximity to the guards and therefore stay in their rooms. This affects their mental health.
Moz said that the refugees had been brought to Australia from offshore detention for medical treatment, but had only received punishment. He said they don't receive proper medications, are unable to go to hospital and receive no real psychiatric treatment.
Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition (NSW) spoke about Villawood Detention Centre where several guards have been stood down because they were at the Crossroads Hotel, the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in NSW. He said that sanitiser, masks and gloves are not available at Villawood.
Former senior medical officer on Nauru Dr Nick Martin said that the psychiatric effects of indefinite detention are well documented. He said it is necessary to highlight the lack of medical and psychiatric attention for the refugees.
There was some debate on strategy for freeing refugees from detention. Martin was against mass protests because of the danger of spreading the virus and urged refugee rights supporters to lobby politicians and prominent people.
Others countered that safe protests are crucial in drawing attention to the problem of refugees living in crowded detention. They pointed out that there is no evidence that anyone caught COVID-19 at the large, safe, Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne on June 6.
The current outbreak in Victoria has been traced to negligence on the part of security companies at two hotels where returned travellers are quarantined.
People also pointed out that refugee supporters had carried out forms of protest that are completely safe, such as a car convoy outside the Mantra Hotel on April 10. Ironically, they were fined for this.
[Chris Slee is an activist with the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria).]