NEWS
07/07/2020 4:33 PM AEST | Updated 07/07/2020 7:37 PM AEST

‘We’re In Survival Mode’: Life Inside Melbourne’s Sudden COVID-19 Tower Lockdown

Residents are still struggling to receive food and supplies four days into the police-enforced lockdown.

Reuters/ ubuntuprojectau/ thecolouredtherapist Instagram
The delivery of expired and no-Halal food has "caused a lot of angst, anxiety, confusion and doubt for residents".

As Ahmed Dini entered his third full day of hard lockdown at his North Melbourne tower block home on Tuesday, there had still only been one food delivery to his apartment - a pack of meat pies dropped at the door at 3am. 

“It wasn’t Halal food or vegetarian so we didn’t touch it,” he said. 

The social worker, who moved to Australia when he was 10-years-old after spending six years in a Kenyan refugee camp, has been working tirelessly to get supplies and information to 3,000 residents in the North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington public housing towers since Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews’ shock mandatory lockdown announcement on Saturday. 

Residents had zero notice before more than 500 police arrived on the estates to keep tenants inside the nine towers, leaving them reliant on community support after they said the government delivered culturally inappropriate food.

Meanwhile residents in 12 neighbouring Melbourne “COVID hotspots”, some in the same postcode as the towers, are facing stage three restrictions but are free to leave their homes for essential reasons. 

“A lot of people need Halal food and they weren’t getting that, we had to take matters into our own hands,” Dini told HuffPost Australia on a phone call from his apartment. 

“It caused a lot of angst, anxiety, confusion and doubt for residents.”    

@ubuntuprojectau Instagram
Ahmed Dini, a Somali Australian community worker, has been working since Saturday to get food and supplies inside the nine locked down public housing towers.

Community members set up a support centre at the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA) to collect and distribute food and essential supplies.

Organisers told HuffPost “through no aid of any institution” they have managed to curate culturally appropriate food hampers and bespoke packs with essential medical supplies and other essential items but boxes were confiscated by authorities when they were dropped at the towers. 

It’s classist - there’s no other word to describe it.Ahmed Dini, resident

“This is a logistical nightmare where no one wants to take accountability.  We’re facing [from the Department of Housing and Human Services (DHHS)] allegations of contamination, we’re facing allegations we’re not following procedure but we’re in survival mode,” former resident and councillor Tigist Kebede told HuffPost Australia. 

“People inside the buildings are not receiving essential services to the point where one resident left the building because he was so hungry.  He was so stressed, exhausted and fearful of what was to happen that he just needed to get outside to get help because he wasn’t able to get help inside.”    

@thecolouredtherapist Instagram
Food donations being sorted at AMSSA, near the public housing towers.

After much time on the phone to members of parliament and ministers, Dini was able to explain to authorities that the government food being delivered was not culturally appropriate and residents needed to be able to accept the donated packages from AMSSA. 

Andrews said in a press conference on Monday that households would receive food packages. Social media and 7 News reported that some of the food was expired while other food items were left on A4 pieces of paper and crates outside apartment doors. 

“DHHS is bringing expired and non-Halal food into the building,” Somali Australian writer and Carlton local Idil Ali, who has been coordinating local support for residents, said in an Instagram Story. 

“[It’s] terrible scraps that they were given. It’s a testament of what’s expected of us. If that’s the regular way that you distribute to people, how terrible it is that they treat people with no options like that.”  

@w_____t_________ Instagram
Food left outside residents' apartments.
@w_____t_________ Instagram
Food left outside residents' apartments.

It’s Classist 

“This is a policy failure for the generations,” Dini said, while pointing out that residents feel “left behind”.

Because of cramped conditions and overcrowding in the towers, residents are at high-risk, a fact Dini said the government should have acted on months ago.  

“The government should have seen this coming. If someone with COVID-19 was to come into the buildings, of course it would cause issues within the community. Now we’re sitting ducks, the numbers will go up in these buildings”. 

Now we’re sitting ducks, the numbers will go up in these buildings.Ahmed Dini, resident

The average number of daily cases in Australia is now 109 compared with an average of just nine cases daily over the first week of June which has led to more than 30 suburbs in Melbourne going back to March-style restrictions. The number of new cases hit 191 on Tuesday.   

It is only those in public housing towers that face a police-guarded lock-in while private apartment blocks just 70 metres away from Dini’s North Melbourne public housing estate are allowed basic freedoms.

REUTERS
Residents were given no time to prepare for the hard lockdown, which was announced by premier Daniel Andrews on Saturday. Almost immediately after the press conference 500 police officers arrived at the nine towers to enforce to the lock in.

“These people should have the right to step outside and exercise,” Dini said.  

“This is for all the people who don’t have much mobility who require some exercise and fresh air - I just hope nobody dies in this building.

“It’s classist - there’s no other word to describe it.”   

Unfair Perceptions 

Dini is concerned residents in the towers will be unfairly blamed for Australia’s new outbreak. 

“No one should blame us but the wider community will be saying ‘they don’t social distance, they’re going to ruin the economy,’” he said. 

“If the government had spent $2 million into these preventive and proactive steps, we wouldn’t have the border closure with NSW, our economy wouldn’t be as smashed, we wouldn’t have people losing jobs. Right now, billions are being lost for something that would have originally cost a few million.”  

What We Want 

“Testing needs to be done quickly and efficiently because we need to start separating members of the community that are positive from those that are negative,” Dini explained. 

“The government is providing hotels for members of the community, so we need that too.” 

As well as more cleaning, distribution of masks and more community collaboration, Dini has urged the government to move those with COVID-19 symptoms in the still-open community estates in Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood and South Melbourne into hotel quarantine to avoid spread and further potential hard lockdowns. 

Residents in the nine towers are also demanding to be allowed to leave the properties for essential reasons to align with the rest of Victoria, the 500 police officers be withdrawn, and testing clinics be set up in walking distance to the towers. 

“When Black Lives Matter was happening in the US and locally, we showed solidarity,” Dini said.  

“We want this to become global because we want other countries in the world to show solidarity to what’s happening in a western country.”