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Shortages of food, medicine and trust: stories from lockdown paint a picture of chaos

People contacted by The Sunday Age, including tower residents and those working on their behalf, agreed with the need for sacrifice in the face of an escalating emergency, which by Friday’s 288 COVID-19 caseload threatened lives and livelihoods in a manner inconceivable only a month before.

Moreover, supplying information to 3000 people from 80 countries of birth and who speak a total of 36 languages is no peace-time order.

But Sheya, now in her ninth day under guard at 33 Alfred Street in North Melbourne, the only tower to remain in hard lockdown, could not abide the government’s force-first approach.

“If they have enough money to pay hundreds of police officers to work 24-hours [at the towers], they could have invested in other resources such as counsellors, social workers, nurses, interpreters – stuff that we would actually benefit from,” she said.

“We have people who have come from war-torn countries that have trauma which is connected to authorities.

“I said to a [police officer at the exit], ‘People are going to come out of this with so much PTSD from what’s happened to us. Who’s going to provide us counselling then?

“That was just on the first day.”

People inside and outside the towers described the situation on Saturday getting chaotic, dangerously so, over the following days.

Food, information, medicines and medical treatment became lodged between bureaucracy and necessary precautions against secondary infections like those of the bungled hotel quarantine program.

The lockdown scene at the towers in North Melbourne.

The lockdown scene at the towers in North Melbourne. Credit:Jason South

The absence of food in the first days caused some to risk infection by leaving their rooms in hope, desperation or frustration, one said, while others have variously condemned communications with residents as non-existent, poor or legalistic jargon.

On Sunday last week, Sheya and her family made their way down the stairs for mandated coronavirus tests and found “50-70” people crowded in dangerously close conditions in the foyer.

Many were not wearing personal protective equipment and she was not surprised.

“There were people down there who weren’t even sure why, because the announcement [over the PA system] was only in English,” she said.

Julian Acheampong, a business analyst who lives with his mother in North Melbourne’s Canning Street tower, said announcements in his building were in a “few” languages, but all written material had been provided in English.

Damian Stock, chief executive of Inner Melbourne Community Legal, said one elderly client was not allowed to leave her tower despite an existing appointment to have a serious wound dressed in hospital.

He said the woman called the Health Department’s 1800 hotline and was directed to speak to police.

“Police downstairs wouldn’t go through the process of understanding the reasons she was seeking to leave, [they] wouldn’t look at the medical letter, or our letters,” Stock said.

The woman spent an uncertain night alone in her unit before appropriate supplies arrived the following day, he said.

Other examples included a client who missed insulin injections, delays in getting prescriptions filled and a mother refused treatment for her migraine and her baby’s fever.

Healthcare workers entering North Melbourne public housing towers.

Healthcare workers entering North Melbourne public housing towers. Credit:Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

“We’d all agree the orders themselves are lawful and are permitted by the very broad powers of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act,” he said, but exemptions on the basis of medical treatment had been “poorly communicated and most residents aren’t aware of them”.

“That’s been the major concern for us, the procedural fairness element,” he said.

Across the road from 33 Alfred Street, the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency transformed what is normally a mosque into a food and supplies warehouse for copious donations from Melburnians and businesses.

Spokesman Nor Shanino, 34, said the most significant impediment to people getting food had been the layers of bureaucracy between health agencies, law enforcement and two Melbourne councils.

“The first one or two days there was nothing to send up from official channels, so everything had to come from here,’ he said. “The problem is, there’s nobody to take it upstairs.”

Shanino, 34, pointed out shopping bags being loaded into a car’s boot by volunteers.

“These are the special orders. They’re all labelled. The volunteer comes out and they’ll drop them off. We don’t know what happens after that,” he said.

“Part of our job is to figure out – two hours later, three hours later, five hours later, the next morning – whether the supplies have been taken up. If they haven’t, we then have to explain that [to the resident].

He said many residents had given up on official deliveries and the 1800 number, which has been plagued with problems, and were instead calling AMSSA or community leaders directly for supplies and help.

Flemington apartment blocks in lockdown on Wednesday.

Flemington apartment blocks in lockdown on Wednesday. Credit:Simon Schluter

On one occasion, a man slipped past police and into AMSSA to plead for essential supplies. Police stopped the chase and let the man fill up when they realised the man was desperate, Shanino said.

“People are literally starving,” he said. “These are people with money in their bank accounts, in Melbourne, in 2020.”

While the situation had improved by Friday, when all but one tower went back to stage three restrictions, the gaps in food and supply still appeared largely filled by charities.

“The volunteers are mostly in their 20s, a lot of them uni students, who have had to step in and do the jobs of well-paid officials,” Shanino said.

Acheampong, from Canning Street, waited almost two days for the first delivery of food, which he said came from a charity group.

“There were bangs on a couple doors on my floor and they let people know there were groceries for us, but the police wouldn’t let the charity group into the building,” he said. “I went around letting people know to go down and grab it. We didn’t get anything [from the government] in my building until Monday night.”

He was walking with his girlfriend in Flemington when the news broke on Saturday evening, giving him time to stock up on supplies before returning to serve his five days.

But concerned one evening about his neighbours with limited English, Acheampong opened his door with the plan to ask about the next food drop and when they would be tested for COVID-19.

“It was bit hostile. There were six police officers standing there with their hot coffees, like ‘where do you think you’re going’. The officer gave me DHHS number and told me to call them. The police presence, you can definitely feel it.”

The problems, which have been acknowledged by the government, have not been uniform across towers and units: many residents were receiving adequate or culturally-appropriate food by Thursday. Others had neutral opinions of the 1800 hotline and positive experiences with police.

Andrews on Saturday thanked residents, volunteers and staff for the “massive” response, which has included two field emergency management units at the North Melbourne and Flemington staffed with health and mental health specialists.

The Royal Melbourne Hospital also partnered with St John Ambulance to establish a 30-bed urgent care clinic at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

The government said it worked with a “wide range” of partners to deliver food and services, while communications included online, phone, face-to-face and the engagement of community leaders.

Almost 13000 food packages were delivered during the initial five-day lockdown.

“They are being supported, each and every one of those families, in terms of groceries, perishable food, mental health support [and] health care, of course,” Andrews said. “There’s a very big team of people doing that work and I’m grateful to them and I’m grateful to those residents.”

Nine public housing towers went into hard lockdown last Saturday. All but one are now on stage three restrictions.

Nine public housing towers went into hard lockdown last Saturday. All but one are now on stage three restrictions.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Outside the Pampas Street tower in North Melbourne, there appeared plentiful food supplies and efficient order, with staff in Work for Victoria vests lined up at least 30 metres with trolleys of supplies bound for residents.

The Sunday Age was soon told by authorities it was not allowed to observe the process and was instead directed to a “media area” several hundred metres away, which did not exist.

Victorian Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari, whose organisation raised $283,000 to help alongside AMSSA, said many issues of the first few days of lockdown were getting better.

“[Emergency Management Commissioner] Andrew Crisp has been very good and ministers have been very quick to respond,” he said. “That middle management has been harder, the ones who are process focused and not outcomes focused.

“I’ve been on a few phone hook-ups and there are people genuinely scared [in the towers] about getting COVID-19 and dying. But we’ve got to get that balance right with making sure people get what they need. Things could have been done better, but we’re also in the middle of a pandemic.”

Mr Hilakari said the “next conversation” was about increasing Victoria’s public housing stock to ease the crowded conditions rife for the spread of infections like COVID-19.

“It’s not just government’s problem, it’s a generational problem since the 70s, where we need to increase our public housing stock … If you look up there, there’s not even any balconies.”

Victoria’s public housing waiting list is expected to soar as more Victorians lose their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sunday Age has asked Housing Minister Richard Wynne for a post-pandemic public housing plan since early June but is yet to receive a response.

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