A preventable disaster

17 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Public Housing,

The Victorian government’s response to the COVID outbreak in the Melbourne public housing towers received much criticism. Here, FRED FUENTES explains how the debacle was allowed to happen.

The rapidness with which COVID-19 can spread and its deadly consequences, especially for the elderly, have been some of its most worrying characteristics. Unsurprisingly, housing areas with people living in cramped conditions — sometimes with three generations under the same roof — have provided fertile grounds for contagion and death. That is why, as the number of positive cases grew in the Melbourne towers, health officials called for urgent action to stop the spread. Yet, despite being an entirely foreseeable scenario, government authorities not only did not prepare for it, but actively contributed to the disaster.

While politicians and the media have sought to pin the blame on the migrant background of many tower residents, responsibility for the outbreak lies with government authorities. The two main causes of the renewed COVID-19 spike in Melbourne were the state government’s farcical handling of hotel quarantining of returned travellers and the federal government’s failure to implement essential workplace safety measures
to stop new outbreaks.

As case numbers rose, government authorities — at a federal, state and local level — refused to implement measures residents were calling for to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19, and failed to develop any plans for dealing with a potential outbreak. This government complacency, rooted in its long-term policy of neglect towards the largely migrant communities who live in the towers, was the real cause of the disaster. The Victorian government sought to deal with the outbreak by sending hundreds of police officers into the towers with no immediate plan beyond forcibly imprisoning residents, including the sick, inside their homes.

A nightmarish scenario was made worse by the fact it took hours and, in some cases, days for residents to obtain
information about the testing plan and receive food, medicines and other support services. In one instance, a
mother was prevented from leaving her unit to see her newborn in hospital. All this only undermined trust in the process and the authorities responsible for its implementation, precisely when it was most needed.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews repeatedly said there was no handbook for dealing with such outbreaks. But given the wealth of available local and international experience in containing and suppressing the COVID-19
pandemic, the outbreak in the towers could have been avoided — and certainly should never have ended up being handled as it was.

The Melbourne towers’ debacle has confirmed that health authorities and the community are best placed to decide how, and if, police resources are required. Where their involvement is deemed necessary, police officers must be disarmed. It has also highlighted the inadequacy of existing public housing stock in Australia, as well as the public health problems associated with high-density living. (See page 34.)

Courtesy of Green Left