Stop scapegoating migrants and the poor for COVID-19

July 10, 2020
Melbourne housing estate. Photo: Jack Stickney

I understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, and support strong action to stop the spread of the virus. However, the Victorian Labor government’s decision to lock down 3000 people in nine public housing estates on July 4, without any prior warning, was simply wrong.

Given the composition of the housing estates, it is hard to avoid describing the measure as more scapegoating and victimisation of migrants and poor working-class people. It revealed the government’s racist and patronising assumption that these people are incapable of understanding, or complying with, public health messages voluntarily.

The public housing residents were not given any notice of the lockdown and were therefore unable to stock up on food, medication or other supplies. This would never have happened if a COVID-19 cluster was found in Toorak.

I live in one of the working-class suburbs placed under Stage 3 restrictions before the whole of Melbourne went into the same lockdown on July 8. But we were given notice; we were allowed to leave our homes to go to work, visit the doctor, exercise, buy essentials and care for family members.

Not so for those in the hard locked down housing estates. It’s been difficult for parents with children in lockdown, but coping in a small flat with small children and those with special needs for days without being allowed to go outside, for any reason, is asking for the impossible. What about those suffering mental health issues or those undergoing chemotherapy?

Unlike most private apartments, the public housing blocks have no balconies and the windows on higher floors are sealed.

Other “hotspot” suburbs have been door knocked — an effective engagement and educational measure that allayed concerns about the COVID-19 test. Multilingual information teams should have doorknocked the estates before the lockdown, and residents should have been offered on-the-spot tests and assistance with self-isolation.

Given Victoria Police’s record of racial profiling, in and around Flemington, enforcing the lockdown with armed police was not the way to carry out an important public health campaign.

On July 7, an Australian Services Union (ASU) meeting of social and community workers with expertise in mental health, family violence, alcohol and other drugs, aged care, migrant and refugee and children’s support voted to condemn “the law and order response” at the North Melbourne and Flemington public housing blocks.

The ASU said: “The experience of community sector workers is that a police presence hinders rather than helps effective community work responses, creating fear, distrust and a barrier to seeking support and services. A hard job is made even harder for ASU members doing their job when clients don’t trust police. They are less likely to engage…”

Police on every floor of the estates and outside apartments would have have caused stress, especially for refugees, asylum seekers or migrants who have experienced police brutality.

Many residents in the estates are essential workers in warehouses, the health sector, transport sector, construction sector and maintenance. They are also cleaners and supermarket workers. 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 were so anxious.

While some hardship payments were made available, residents with jobs were worried about getting the sack for not turning up to work, as the government had not promised to fully subsidise the wages of those in the hard lockdown or guarantee the security of their jobs.

Some residents formed Voices From The Blocks in response to the hard lockdown. They put forward several demands including that: the estates be placed under Stage 3 restrictions like the rest of Melbourne; that the 500 police and Authorised Officers be immediately removed; that the government implement regular infection prevention measures; that it set up testing sites within walking distance of the estates, rather than in the foyers of the estate buildings; and it coordinate services to bolster community-led initiatives around food delivery, as well as medical, financial, mental health and social service needs.

Testing finished in all nine housing estates on July 9. The 33 Alfred St, North Melbourne block will remain in hard lockdown, while eight others will go under Stage 3 restrictions, like the rest of Melbourne. Residents see this as a partial victory.

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

Contracting and sub-contracting out work has made the creation of safe workplaces 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 to enter workplaces to check on health and safety conditions.

Professor of Epidemiology Healthcare Infection and Infectious Diseases Control at the University of NSW Mary-Louise McLaws wrote in The Conversation on July 7 that the “ring-fencing” of hotspots in Melbourne already failed before the hard lockdown of public housing because of “cases leaking out of these hotspots and rising rates of community transmission”.

She said “ring-fencing is an effective control method when people’s needs — food, heating and internet access — are well looked after. If we get that wrong, we lose people’s collective good will and cooperation.”

Not only was the hard lockdown not done in a way to meet people’s needs, McLaws said “it also lacks epidemiological sense”.

“Forcing people into even closer quarters creates a pressure cooker environment where family outbreaks are even more likely.” She described a pandemic as “a long-term project” making “trust” a key part of dealing with it. “Building trust is an investment in resilience that enables our community to continue to respond well during this extended outbreak.”

The largely migrant communities in the nine high-rise public housing estates are well aware of the danger of COVID-19: some have lost family members to COVID-19 overseas. They could be a powerful resource for health officials in containing and stamping out the virus, especially as there is already a high degree of organisation in the estates. But they will not be able to help if they are treated as criminals.

Victorian and other governments should not repeat this hurtful and disastrous mistake because, in the fight against COVID-19, punitive and paternalistic interventions that remove people’s agency have to be avoided.

[Sue Bolton is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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