The scale of the COVID-19 outbreak — and potential for tragedy — among 3000 residents living in nine closely-located public housing blocks in the Melbourne suburbs of Flemington and Kensington should not be underestimated.
On the day testing was completed, July 9, it was announced that 159 cases of COVID-19 had been found across the towers, representing about 6% of those tested.
The level of infections was higher in some towers (including up to 20-25% in one tower that remains in hard lockdown), while two towers were found to have no cases.
Since then the number of positive cases has grown to 237, according to a July 12 statement by Victoria's health department.
The scale of the outbreak, combined with the high population density inside the towers and large percentage of at-risk residents, meant it posed an unparalleled threat to residents.
The rapidness with which COVID-19 can spread and its deadly consequences, especially for the elderly, have been some of its most worrying characteristics. Unsurprisingly, housing areas with people living in cramped conditions — sometimes with three generations under the same roof — have provided fertile grounds for contagion and death.
That is why, as the number of positive cases grew in the towers, health officials called for urgent action to stop the spread. Yet, despite being an entirely foreseeable scenario, government authorities not only did not prepare for it, but actively contributed to the disaster.
While politicians and the media have sought to pin the blame on the “complacency” and migrant background of many tower residents, responsibility for the outbreak lies with government authorities.
The two main causes of the renewed COVID-19 spike in Melbourne were the state government’s farcical handling of hotel quarantining of returned travellers and the federal government’s failure to implement essential COVIDsafe workplace safety measures to stop new outbreak.
As case numbers rose, government authorities — at a federal, state and local level — refused to implement measures residents were calling for to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19, and failed to develop any plans for dealing with a potential outbreak.
This government complacency, rooted in its long-term policy of neglect towards the largely migrant communities who live in the towers, was the real cause of the disaster.
Countries such as Vietnam, which have had good success in suppressing the virus, have dealt with similar virus outbreaks through hard lockdowns. These were headed up by health officials that, together with law enforcers, carrying out emergency testing, provided residents with essentials and treated positive cases in designated facilities. The focus was always on meeting peoples' needs.
The Victorian government instead sought to deal with the outbreak by sending hundreds of police officers into the towers with no immediate plan beyond forcibly imprisoning residents, including the sick, inside their homes.
A nightmarish scenario was made worse by the fact it took hours and, in some cases, days for residents to obtain information about the testing plan and receive food, medicines and other support services. In one instance, a mother was prevented from leaving her unit to see her new-born in hospital.
All of this only undermined trust in the process and the authorities responsible for its implementation, precisely when it was most needed.
Although a 30-bed field hospital has now been set up at the nearby Royal Showgrounds, it is insufficient to house all the sick. Instead, families are being offered rooms in hotel for relatives to recover.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has repeatedly said there is no handbook for dealing with such outbreaks. But given the wealth of available local and international experience in containing and suppressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak in the towers could have been avoided — and certainly should never have ended up being handled like this.
In April, the Socialist Alliance put for an emergency plan for rapid action to suppress the spread of COVID-19.
Among other measures, it called on governments to draft plans for how to implement isolation measures and concentrate treatment programs in the case of such outbreaks.
The Socialist Alliance also raised the urgent need to select community facilities for use as field hospitals to handle less-than-critical cases, as a means to ensure patients could be safely treated outside of their home and avoid spreading the virus to other family members.
It noted the need for emergency censuses to pinpoint at-risk households and those requiring urgent support. Such a census could be used to inform health authorities of those requiring immediate relocating due to their health situation or need for special care, in case of such emergencies.
The Melbourne towers' debacle has confirmed that health authorities and the community are best placed to decide how, and if, police resources are required. Where their involvement is deemed necessary, police officers must be disarmed.
The hardship payments being offered by the government need to be accompanied by a ban on sacking anyone whose ability to work is affected by lockdowns (or the need to be tested and self-isolate if sick, for that matter) with strict punishment for bosses who do. No-one should be left without a job as a result of health measures seeking to tackle the pandemic.
Similarly, the rent relief being offered should be combined with a waiver of household bills that will undoubtably rise as families are cooped up inside. All households also need to be guaranteed access to the internet for communication, educational and entertainment purposes.
COVID safe committees
To help prevent future outbreaks, COVID safe committees could be established in all high-density apartment buildings. These could involve local residents, health workers and local and state government representatives in a community-based approach to address issues facing residents.
As a start, they could enlist and train volunteers for an emergency census of the building.
They could also ensure preventative measures are undertaken, such as providing hand sanitiser, ensuring that regular deep cleans of communal spaces are done, make rosters for communal laundries, and expand temperature checks and testing.
Similarly, they could play a vital role in ensuring a permanent flow of information (in any required format and language) to all residents regarding preventative or containment measures.
While the Victorian government has been able to offer temporary accommodation to some families living in overcrowded conditions during the pandemic, a longer-term solution is necessary.
The Melbourne towers lockdown has highlighted the inadequacy of existing public housing stock as well as the public health problems associated them. It has also shown that there is a high level of support for the residents with the broader community.
At the same time, sectors such as the construction union, are calling for funding for public housing projects to help create jobs amid the COVID-19 recession.
A campaign to improve and expand public housing therefore has the potential to involve tenants, supporters, unemployed workers and unions.