Public housing residents speak out against being scapegoated for COVID-19 spread

Flemington housing estate in Melbourne.

The scapegoating of poor working class and migrant communities for the COVID-19 pandemic was ramped up when the Daniel Andrews' government imposed its hard lockdown on nine public housing tower blocks on July 4.

It was bad enough with the right-wing Herald Sun tabloid running its racist scapegoating campaign and then Pauline Hanson launched her poisonous spray against public housing residents on Nine Network's Today Show.

But when 500 police were sent to lockdown the towers — about one cop for every six residents — it greatly reinforced their racist scapegoating. It was also an insult to communities who are mostly battling and, in some cases, still suffering trauma from escaping war and displacement.

Governments need to listen to the tower block residents to understand just how draconian the impact of the hard lockdown was. Many residents have spoken out powerfully on various social media platforms and I have tried to share their messages.

One woman of Eritrean background posted on Facebook: “I am a human being first, but also an Australian citizen, a mum to four beautiful children, a university student, an essential health worker, a daughter to elderly parents who need my support, a sister to my two siblings who looks up to me and needs my guidance when they are struggling, a close friend to many people of all colour and faith, who I love and care about dearly.

“I am not a criminal or a drug addict, I have not done anything wrong, I do not have Covid and [am not] walking around [and] spreading it as they say. I am not a prisoner but have been made one.

“I did ‘stay at home’ before our imprisonment even began, because I have a brain and follow rules to keep myself, family and others safe.

“I do not deserve this harsh treatment.”

She explained that, as the residents of the towers were given no notice of the lockdown, she was running out of nappies for her three-month-old baby. She called the housing department hotline numerous times the day after the lockdown was imposed before she could get through.

“I rang again at 9pm as I thought they forgot ... Apparently they had 'escalated' my request and it had been prioritised in their to-do list. I heard nothing until I was woken up by a phone call at 3.18am to say come down and pick up the nappies.

“I asked if the nappies could be left outside my door as it was late and I had no one to help, and everyone was asleep.

“The answer was, sorry you have to come down. 'Maybe you can just quickly duck down if they are all sleeping,' I was told by a DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] worker, to leave my baby unattended to pick up nappies.”

The experience of this woman shows up the perverse hypocrisy in the myth that the residents are irresponsible and uneducated.

Tower resident Emel Evcin described the police siege as being like a “war” on communities already suffering disproportionately during the pandemic.

“We are four people living in a two-bedroom apartment in the towers of the residential estate.

“We have no access to outdoor space, there is no balcony to get a breath of fresh air, windows only open enough to fit a hand through and, unless it is blowing a gale outside, very little fresh air gets inside.”

Even before the hard lockdown was imposed, to get outside Evcin's family had to “run the gauntlet of two over-crowded elevators (not always working) that often have dozens of people waiting to get upstairs or on their way down as they service 180 households.

“They provided us with a hand sanitiser dispenser on the ground floor but, more often than not, it is empty and 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. Nine households make do with two washing machines and two dryers as not all apartments have space for a washing machine.

“Now, they have flooded the grounds with police and given us no information other than a single text message reading: 'If you live in North Melb / Flemington Estate you must not leave your home unless it is an emergency. COVID testing will start now' with a link to generic COVID-19 Health advice.”

Evcin's account casts doubt on Premier Daniel Andrews' claim that the lockdown was motivated by government concern about tower residents' vulnerability to COVID-19.

Residents are very aware that these run-down, overcrowded and poorly ventilated housing blocks are not COVID-19 safe. Another friend of mine, who lives in a similar tower in Melbourne's north-east that is not yet in a hard lockdown, told me about her numerous attempts to get the DHHS to do their job.

“As the emergency lockdown started in March, I was horrified at the lack of government response in the building where I live, considering the enormous risk here.

“When I described the situation to my GP, he called the building a 'tinder box' for COVID-19.”

She contacted DHHS to ask what was being done to mitigate the risk but received no response. On March 24, she emailed Minister for Housing Richard Wynne asking for COVID-19 advice for residents in the complex, in their language. She also asked for hand sanitiser and for public places to be disinfected. Her requests for DHHS to do a risk assessment of the building went unanswered. She also called the cleaning contractor, many times, to ask what they were doing and received no response.

She finally spoke to one cleaner and he admitted he was not using hospital grade cleaner on the lift walls. The state government's website says it is “making sure public housing communities have the latest information and advice” about slowing the spread of the virus including “putting extra staff on the ground in the 13 estates, which mainly house elderly tenants, who are particularly susceptible to the virus”.

It also says: “Security, essential maintenance and cleaning service providers are increasing preventative measures across all public housing estates — performing additional cleaning of communal areas, providing anti-bacterial sanitiser, and advising staff on how they can safely maintain service delivery.”

The reality, however, was totally different.

The DHHS did not believe the residents' complaints about the inadequate cleaning. One manager said the cleaning had been done because the cleaning contractor had said so.

After about three weeks of pretty fruitless back and forth with DHHS and the housing minister’s office, one concerned resident told me they saw some cleaners who were, finally, using hospital grade disinfectant. They also saw a couple of extra security staff, who had been detailed to keep residents informed.

Public housing residents need to be listened to. Governments need to be fix unsafe buildings and have a plan to relocate sick residents to safety. We cannot allow poor, largely migrant, communities to be neglected or terrorised by racist police violence, as has also happened at the housing estates.

[Sue Bolton is the Socialist Alliance councillor in Moreland City Council. She is running for reelection in October.]

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