Socialist councillor: Jackboot lockdown of residents is counterproductive and feeds racism

July 5, 2020
The view from inside one of the housing estates on July 6. Photo: Emel Evcin

The reality is that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' “hard lockdown” for public housing tenants in the Flemington — Kensington — North Melbourne area could have been done in a sensitive and inclusive manner, but he chose not to.

The politics behind the decision to authorise a hard lockdown is what is most worrying.

I understand the seriousness of the pandemic, and support action to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But health advice has to be applied sensitively, and the decision to lockdown 3000 people in nine public housing estates for at least 5 days, possibly longer, without any prior warning, is simply wrong. It reveals the extent of the government’s arrogance and racism.

Given the composition of the housing estates, it is hard to avoid describing this measure as more victimisation of migrants and poor working class people. This would not have been done if a virus outbreak had been found in Toorak.

As the residents were not notified, they therefore were not even able to stock up on food and other supplies, unlike residents living in the locked-down suburbs of Flemington and Kensington. The police were in place from 4pm on July 4, blocking all exits as the Premier was making his announcement.

The fact that only some suburbs and postcodes are locked down and others are not is media's fueling the stigmatisation of poorer suburbs.

I live in one of the locked-down suburbs, but we can still leave our homes to go to work, the doctor, exercise, buy essentials and care for family members. This is not the case for those living in the housing estates. Not to allow them out for the same reasons as we are is simply discrimination.

Since the first lockdown, we know how difficult it has been for parents with children. Coping in a small flat for days without being allowed to go outside, especially for those with small children and those with special needs is asking for the impossible. What about those suffering from mental health issues?

The hotspot suburbs have been door knocked, an effective engagement and educational measure that allayed concerns about the pandemic and the test. Why weren't multilingual door-knockers sent in to the estates?

Door knocking and the offer of on-the-spot tests and assistance with self-isolation is what should be happening on the estates, not this punitive approach.

Public housing residents should not be subject to worse restrictions than others. They should not be treated differently from those in the locked down suburbs.

People are correctly worried about whether they will get the sack for not turning up to work as the government had not promised to fully subsidise the wages of those in a hard lockdown.

And why make Victoria Police the enforcers? Given the police's record of racial profiling in and around Flemington, the police should not be the first responders — or even be involved in a health emergency.

As a friend remarked to me, having police on every floor of their estate and outside their apartment will be triggering, especially for refugees, asylum seekers or migrants how have witnessed police brutality.

Why weren't multilingual health professionals sent to the estates to explain and engage with residents? The Victorian government doesn't look “strong”; it looks pathetic.

Many people living in the estates are essential workers in warehouses, the health sector, transport sector, construction sector and maintenance. They are also cleaners and supermarket workers. In other words, these people are not able to work from home and, if they don't go to work, they don't have an income. No wonder so many are anxious.

A big failure in the government's pandemic reduction plan has been its lack of attention to those employers that haven't introduced COVID-19 safety regulations.

Contracting out work and those contractors further sub-contracting the work, makes the process of creating a safe workplace and notifying workers of a positive case diagnosis more difficult. That is the story of the privately-contracted security guards who tested positive after working at the quarantine hotels in Melbourne.

WorkSafe should be conducting an audit of worksites to enforce safe work practices, including to ensure there is enough PPE.

The Labor government should also insist that employers allow unions into all workplaces to check on the health and safety conditions, and to talk to workers.

Residents of the public housing estates, like those living elsewhere, deserve a sensitive and inclusive approach to dealing with the virus infection outbreaks. They should not be thrown under a bus by the government as it starts to feel the pressure.

Migrant communities are well aware of the virus' devastation: some have lost family members to COVID-19 overseas. The tenants could be a huge resource for health officials in containing and stamping out the virus. They will not be able to if they are treated as criminals.

If 10 postcodes can be given 36-48 hours notice to lockdown, so too can public housing residents. Ending the punitive approach will go a long way to getting on top of the pandemic.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor in Moreland City Council.]

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