When health care worker Naima Mohamed arrived home from work to her Flemington public housing estate on the Saturday of the government-enforced hard lockdown, she had one thought when she saw police guarding her building: her migraine medication.
Mohamed, who suffers from chronic migraines and has attacks at least four times a week, explained her situation to police officers ― the only people she could ask for help at that time.
“I was given a telephone number by the police to call,” the 32-year-old told HuffPost Australia.
“It was the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) hotline. When I called the number, I explained I have pre-existing health conditions and need my medication. They took my details down, and I didn’t hear from anybody for two days.”
After multiple connections with the DHHS, Mohamed, who had needed to refill the prescription, ended up going without the migraine medication for the entire six days of the quarantine lockdown.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews ordered without notice on Saturday, July 4 that residents of the North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington estates stay confined to their homes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. The order brought widespread criticism from residents.
After testing all 3,000 people in the towers, residents in eight of the nine high-rise buildings were allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons on Thursday, the same rules in force throughout the state, including for residential buildings in the same postcode as some of the public housing estates.
The remaining tower at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne is expected to remain on police-guarded lockdown for five more days.
Four days into the hard lockdown and without medication, Mohamed walked down to the foyer of her building to look for help. She spoke to an employee from Inner Melbourne Community Legal who was gathering concerns from residents.
Mohamed told the not-for-profit community organisation that she had not heard from the DHHS about her medication. When Inner Melbourne Community Legal staff called her the next day to follow up, Mohamed was still without medication.
Mohamed said the DHHS had apparently “escalated” her case, but she went six days alone without her medication and was in “excruciating” pain.
“I had no choice but to wait,” she said.
Mohamed is separated from her six-year-old daughter, who is in Malaysia with Mohamed’s sister. As the coronavirus took hold and borders closed, Mohamed could not get a flight to join her young daughter, who was born in Australia.
“I live alone, I was seriously going crazy, I was sick and all I could think about was my daughter,” she said.
It wasn’t until Thursday, when the Andrews government eased the hard lockdown to stage three restrictions, that Mohamed was finally able to get her medication. Inner Melbourne Community Legal is assisting individual residents to file complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman about claims that DHHS was unable to provide medication.
Cohealth, the independent community organisation mobilised by the government to help collect medicines for residents in the hard lockdown and quarantine, said the original hotline set up by DHHS became blocked quickly.
“We realised the wait was too long on the 1800-number DHHS hotline,” Cohealth’s Executive Lead of Strategy Kim Webber told HuffPost Australia.
“It was stopping people getting through to us, so we set up our own line specific to health concerns on Monday. On Friday, we scaled up the phone line and asked that it be communicated to all residents.
“Last week our phone line team fielded 260 calls with medication, mental health support and diabetes management queries, which is the most common reason for calling.”
Webber said that language has been a significant barrier for the community health group but about a third of the 3000 residents in hard lockdown are existing Cohealth clients, which provided some familiarity for patients.
Meanwhile, going without her migraine medication left Mohamed exhausted.
“I am traumatised by my experience. Even though now I’m allowed to go to work as an ‘essential worker’, my mental and physical health is bad,” she said, adding that she will pursue the matter with Inner Melbourne Community Legal.
“I do not want people to suffer the way I did.”
Hani Ali, a resident at the 12 Holland Court, Flemington block, also lives alone and found limited health support.
“No one helped me for my mental health. I had a breakdown,” said the 38-year-old, who has lived in the tower for eight years.
Now she fears leaving her home after what she described as a “traumatic” experience.
“I am still traumatised and scared. I didn’t leave the house for two days even though the restrictions were eased, I was still so fearful. I thought I would run out into the fresh air, but something was holding me back — fear. Fear that I would be locked back in.”
Ali also faced a language barrier as her English is limited and there were no official services for mental health in her native Somali language.
“The only time I could communicate effectively with police was when Fartun Farah (a community leader) showed up.”
“After that, I had to get help from friends.”
The DHHS did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Victoria recorded 270 new coronavirus cases in the 24 hours up to 11am Tuesday. Melbourne and Mitchell Shire went back to stage three restrictions last Wednesday in an attempt to control the outbreak.
Australia’s national total is now 10,250 reported cases and 108 deaths.