Dilan Thampapillai, Yasmin Poole and Andrew Ray*
Has the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic been shared equally in Australia? Has the response from federal and state governments been in keeping with community attitudes and expectations? The hard lockdown of public housing units in Melbourne would suggest that the impact on ethnic communities and lower socio-economic groups is at times disproportionate and unfair. In the aftermath of the tower lockdowns it is worth considering how vulnerable and disadvantaged communities might be better treated in the future.
Inadequate support before the lockdown
A COVID-19 outbreak in public housing is deeply concerning, yet unsurprising. Victoria was already experiencing a public housing crisis before the pandemic, with the lowest proportion of public housing across all Australian states. This has contributed to significant overcrowding in public housing spaces.
The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) states that disasters can be ‘profoundly discriminatory’ in where they strike and the impacts they inflict. Recent data from the University of Melbourne reveals that recent COVID-19 outbreaks have disproportionately affected communities with housing affordability stress, overcrowding and homelessness.
Densely populated areas means that residents are particularly vulnerable to community transmission. Those without savings and unable to work from home may be forced to work in close proximity to the general public, meaning they are more at risk of infection. These situations combine to further influence the spread of the virus.
The Victorian Government has also been criticised for failing to implement basic precautionary measures before the lockdown. Tower residents have reported having a lack of hand sanitiser and COVID-19 public health information in different languages, masks were also not distributed in public housing blocks.
Public housing residents are vulnerable to the pandemic. But this vulnerability is symptomatic of the government’s failure to sufficiently address overcrowding and limited working rights, including precarious employment. The decades long neglect and disinvestment in public housing reiterates how government policy can entrench systemic inequality.
The hard lockdown
The Victorian Government’s hard lockdown on nine public housing blocks has been met with considerable criticism.
To preface, lockdowns play an important role in protecting local communities. The state of Victoria is currently under Stage 3 lockdowns and residents are only permitted to leave their homes for essential reasons. The lockdown of affected public housing estates were important to monitor and control the outbreak.
At the same time, the lockdown in this scenario was far from conventional. Residents were only given one hour’s notice that it would be taking place. This was followed by over 500 police surrounding the public housing blocks. Residents have reported that no support, counsellors or interpreters were available at the preliminary lockdown phase.
The enforcement of the hard lockdown revealed a concerning absence of community consultation. The immediate, police-led containment response failed to consider how it could acutely affect certain residents, namely refugees who have experienced trauma such as fleeing war or family violence. The situation may have also been confusing for residents who do not speak English as their first language. This, combined with the general history of over-policing in these suburbs, explains why many residents reported feeling ‘anxious, afraid and intimidated’ by the large scale police presence.
Local organisations such as Australian Muslim Social Services Agency Youth Connect and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre also operated independently to provide food donations and other necessary items during the lockdown. Future COVID-19 containment strategies could directly engage with these organisations to provide coordinated, grassroots support for marginalised communities. This assistance, alongside providing a far greater number of translators, social workers and healthcare workers, is essential to building community trust.
Long term risks
The wider impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on public housing residents will not be known for some time. On a psychological level, the hard lockdown enforced by very visible policing will likely have fractured the trust between residents and the authorities. The danger here is that similar measures cannot easily be repeated, even if they are badly needed in future, because of the inadequate communication and consultation. Crucially, the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses that it engenders should not entrench socio-economic disadvantage.
On an economic level, the hard lockdown is likely to have exacerbated existing economic vulnerabilities. For example, during the lockdown the Premier has waived rent for two weeks, a $1,500 hardship payment for those who are employed but cannot go to work, and a $750 hardship payment for households where there is no one employed.
Yet this support, in the form of food and welfare, is unlikely to continue after the shutdown. Similarly, there are still no mechanisms in place to ensure greater consultation to address specific community needs and vulnerabilities. It does beg the question of whether the public housing residents will be forgotten again?
*Dilan Thampapillai is a Senior Lecturer at the ANU College of Law, Yasmin Poole is a fourth year LLB(Hons)/BIR student studying at the Australian National University, Andrew Ray is a final year LLB(Hons)/BSc student. The authors would like to thank Associate Professor Matthew Zagor for his feedback on this piece.