Sitting in her apartment on the first floor of a public housing tower in Waterloo with the walls covered in pictures of her family, 74-year-old Masalo Laumua has never felt more alienated.
“I know what people think of us, that we’re low-lifes, living like we’re dirty but we’re just like everyone else trying to stay clean and safe.”
Ms Laumua, 74, lives in a public housing estate in Waterloo, inner Sydney, which includes over 2,000 dwellings.
She claims there is no clear sanitisation protocol or social distancing enforced, and worries a growing coronavirus cluster in south-west Sydney could affect towers like hers.
Nine public housing towers in Melbourne, home to about 3,000 residents in 1,345 units, were placed in “hard lockdown” earlier this month after tenants contracted coronavirus.
Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton has previously highlighted the “explosive potential” for COVID-19 to spread in high-density public housing towers.
Ms Laumua is aware the virus can linger for days and as someone with underlying health issues her safest option has been to largely keep to her apartment.
However it has been devastating for her sense of connection to others.
“It’s been hard without that family connection every day, hugging and kissing my grandchildren — that’s gone,” Ms Laumua
“It’s been a very lonely time.”
Richard Weeks, who is the founder and chairman of the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group says sanitising confined spaces like the lifts was something tenants had to battle for during the outbreak.
“Cleaners are meant to clean the lifts every day, but they use the same cloth over and over, spray something on the wall and walk out,” Mr Weeks said.
“Sterilisation isn’t taken seriously.
“For older residents it is terrifying, because then what’s next if someone catches it? Will what is happening in Victoria happen here? Will there be access to food?” Mr Weeks said.
The NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) is the agency responsible for the NSW Government’s public housing portfolio.
It said in a statement that cleaning was done in accordance with the requirements of NSW Health to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“Land and Housing Corporation has had in place a thorough cleaning program implemented in all 28 of its high rise buildings,” a spokesperson said.
“LAHC continues to review its response, and is in the process of adding sanitiser dispensing stations at the entry to the buildings.”
Mr Weeks said using lifts in the estate was a nightmare due to social distancing, which meant only two people were allowed in at a time.
“The second one is always out of order, so when you’ve got 40 people coming into a building that houses 400, you’re usually waiting an hour in peak time,” he said.
Mr Weeks has often seen the rules broken with groups of eight piling into lifts.
“Security here do a damn good job but they’re not being supported by the housing department who should do more and warn tenants who break the rules,” Mr Weeks said.
A Department of Communities and Justice spokesperson told the ABC that the NSW Government has been working closely with social housing tenants to keep them informed on NSW Health advice.
“DCJ staff also called every tenant over the age of 70 to check on the welfare and offer support. This decision was made based on the increased vulnerability of older people to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
Ms Laumua claimed that she had barely seen cleaners in the past six months — often because there’s no extension cord to take the vacuum down the narrow hallway.
“We pay rent we have the right to live in a clean and healthy place.”