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Policing the Pandemic: Melbourne’s Public Housing Lockdown Criminalizes Those on the Margins

Last Saturday morning, I woke up in Brussels to messages from friends and family in Melbourne. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced nine public housing towers with 3,000 residents were being locked down.  There had been 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst residents. Five hundred police were descending on housing estates, trapping residents inside with no coherent health strategy or plans to keep them safe, fed or with access to medication and essentials. As a humanitarian analyst for the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders COVID Emergency Task Force, I support projects in complex environments examine the use and misuse of public health measures, including lockdowns on populations. I never thought I would be using that experience to advise my own family in Australia.

Many countries have implemented heavy-handed or militarised lockdowns but in my experience, this is one of the most disproportionate and extreme uses of such measures I have ever seen.

In the past few months, we have seen that the coronavirus pandemic amplifies and deepens existing structural inequalities, exclusion and neglect in our health systems and wider societies. Those on the margins – the poor, the elderly, indigenous communities and racialised groups – have not only been the most exposed, but also the least protected. Unsurprisingly, the use of forceful policing, harsh lockdowns and other coercive measures to attempt to control COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted minorities and racialised groups. In Greece, severe restrictions have been places on asylum seekers and Roma communities. In Lebanon, migrant workers from Bangladesh were forcibly quarantined in poor conditions in crowded buildings.

The 2014 Ebola epidemic taught us that such coercive approaches contradict evidence-based, public health best practice, and that targeting disadvantaged communities’ results in stigma, fear, and a loss of trust in authorities. This will be the legacy of this lockdown.

I grew up in and around these towers, visiting friends and family; it is a strong, diverse community who look out for each other but are often ignored by services and authorities.

This community is now being publicly humiliated and dehumanised, made prisoners in their own homes overnight. They were already at risk: cramped living arrangements, large families including those who are older or sick, communal areas and a lack of multilingual health education has left them more exposed. Instead of having a competent public health plan to prevent such a disaster, they are instead being met with collective punishment. This failure is not theirs but that of the authorities.

There is a long, documented history of police discrimination towards the people they are now holding hostage in these towers, particularly those who are Indigenous or from the African diaspora.  We hear daily reports from family and friends of harassment, aggressive and discriminatory conduct. Police are not trained health workers or educators.  We also know that despite the swift law enforcement presence, there have been stark gaps and delays in every other part of this so-called health response. 

In fact, very little has been done to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 within the towers.  Lifts remain broken, which leads to more crowding, adequate sanitiser and disinfectant have not been made available, and people have been left literally begging for food, medication and sanitary essentials.  Others have suffered mental health breakdowns out of trauma and the confusion caused by a lack of clear messaging from the government.  In an attempt to address a public health crisis, the State Government has simply triggered a humanitarian one.

The main objective of any COVID-19 response is reducing transmission and saving lives; this does not mean that human rights are void.  States can impose restrictions but only when they are strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, respectful of human dignity, and proportionate.

This response violates all of these criteria. The stark contradiction between the application of these measures for those in public housing versus those who live just across the street in expensive city apartments cannot be ignored. It is a clear message from the Premier that some Victorians can participate in the protection of their own health whilst others must be disciplined and coerced.

Many of those outside of our communities support the lockdown. They ask what else could have been done. An effective response to a health crisis is rooted in respect for human rights and emphasises empowerment and community engagement, including policies that build trust and solidarity.

The State Government should be focused on implementing measures that protect residents, rather than treating them like criminals. Simple, common-sense measures like  improving regular deep cleaning of communal areas, sanitation points throughout the building, providing masks, active health promotion and community engagement, sharing timely information with residents on new cases in their residence, setting up testing points close to public housing to increase accessibility. These are just a few measures MSF is implementing in cities, slums and refugee camps all over the world.

Why couldn’t this happen in the towers? We can only assume that to the government, some lives are worth respecting while others simply are not.

Reem Mussa – Humanitarian Advisor on Forced Migration

This article expresses the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of MSF.

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The opinions and analysis contained in this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Médecins Sans Frontières.