Victoria’s hard lockdown of some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable residents last month left the community feeling anxious, fearful and as if they were being “treated like criminals”.
- A number of residential tower blocks were suddenly shut down on July 4
- Submissions to an ombudsman’s inquiry show residents were traumatised by the shutdown
- A community organisation said the heavy police presence stigmatised communities that already felt marginalised
The chaos and confusion at nine public housing towers is detailed in reports to a Victorian Ombudsman inquiry, revealing residents slept rough in their cars, ran out of food and supplies, while others reportedly self-harmed.
7.30 has obtained two legal submissions by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre and Inner Melbourne Community Legal which are now representing residents.
“The extreme police presence was re-traumatising for residents with lived experiences of war or persecution, and stoked racist community sentiment that further stigmatised already marginalised people,” according to Inner Melbourne Community Legal.
‘Extreme stress and anxiety’
On July 4, hundreds of police were deployed to contain residents in Flemington and North Melbourne for at least five days.
The lockdown was later lifted except for residents at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne, who couldn’t leave their homes for a further nine days.
“Throughout the lockdown, the inability for people to leave their homes for any reason caused extreme stress and anxiety,” Inner Melbourne Community Legal said.
It said there was a lack of access to medical treatment including “immediate access to life-saving medication” and “vital medication for chronic mental health issues”.
Residents were “confronted by other residents’ deteriorating mental health when they could hear them screaming from their homes or in the corridors”.
According to the submission, COVID-19 spread through families because they were unable to isolate in “severely overcrowded conditions”, while some who were unable to return to the towers were left temporarily homeless, having to pay for their own hotel accommodation despite “facing severe financial hardship”.
In some cases, Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was disorganised and unresponsive, with some residents calling the dedicated phone hotline but failing to hear back for days, if at all.
Lockdown triggered ‘unimaginable trauma’
Girmay Mengesha is a member of the Ethiopian community in Flemington, and he questions the way the lockdown was handled.
“The way the Government conducted themselves was very, very wrong,” he told 7.30.
“Most of the community members in this area are people who have escaped a traumatic experience back home so they don’t have a good understanding or acceptance of police.
“They escaped torture, they escaped kidnapping.
“The trauma that was triggered was unimaginable.
When the lockdown happened, Mr Mengesha took it upon himself to help translate public health messages from English to the local languages, Amharic and Tigrinya.
He said the Government’s initial communications that provided crucial information about infection control were in English only.
The Government has now put up new signs but other languages were not immediately apparent — residents must scan a code that directs them to a website.
“This is very cumbersome and very complicated,” Mr Mengesha said.
He hoped the ombudsman inquiry would lead to more engagement with the Government.
“The only way to move forward is together. You cannot decide everything for us, you have to talk to us,” he said.
‘Treated as if they were criminal’
Some residents were allowed out to exercise but only in an outdoor area enclosed by temporary fencing, which the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre described as a “prison yard”.
7.30 understands this was designed to manage infection control but the DHHS later decided it was not required.
“Our concern around that was why, again, were these people treated as if they were criminals,” said Daniel Nguyen from Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre.
Victoria Police has acknowledged that “the presence of police may have made some residents feel uncomfortable” but maintained the community response it had received was positive.
The DHHS said it would fully cooperate with the ombudsman and would carefully consider any recommendations it made.