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Issue #1923      July 13, 2020

Free the 9 blocks

Victoria’s second wave

On Tuesday the 30th June, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews released a statement that announced that the next day, at 11:59pm, Stage Three restrictions for selected suburbs in Melbourne were to be introduced. Stage Three restrictions mean that you cannot leave your home unless it is for work, education, exercise, medical care, buying essentials, or care-giving. It is at the police’s discretion whether you meet one of these categories when you leave the house, and if they decide you do not have a legitimate reason, you are fined up to $1652.

Firefighters in PPE prepare to deliver supplies to one of the housing towers.

The “hot-spot” suburbs targeted by this initial lock-down are predominantly working-class suburbs. In our article “Insecure Work Leading Cause of Victoria’s Coronavirus Cases” (#1917) we focused on Coronavirus outbreaks in Melbourne’s north and western suburbs, Craigieburn and Brooklyn – both suburbs are now known as “hot-spot” suburbs. The Coronavirus “clusters” in these areas were the result of poor hygiene conditions at Cedar Meats, an abattoir in Brooklyn, and a McDonald’s, located in Fawkner, a suburb in Melbourne’s north.

On the 4th July, without notice to the residents, the state government introduced a “hard lock-down” by deploying 500 police to keep 3,000 residents from leaving their homes in nine public housing buildings in Flemington, North Melbourne, and Kensington. It was announced that residents will be under hard lock-down for minimum five days, with an extension of at least fourteen days if residents do not “cooperate” with testing.

Daniel Andrews justified the hard lock-down by the presence of “twenty-three cases across more than twelve households” in public housing buildings. Richard Wynne, the Minister for Housing, further justified the response by the fact that the buildings “rely on common entrances, common walkways and common lifts,” which could be said of any apartment building, public or private.

The racist actions of the state government target marginalised, working class communities who have a traumatic history with the police. Many migrants in the buildings also have a traumatic history with mandatory detention. Rather than responding with multilingual social workers, health care workers, PPE and medical supplies, the government decided to deploy one police officer for every six residents to ensure nobody leaves their homes for work, school, exercise, medical supplies, food essentials and so on. These restrictions are beyond the Stage Three restrictions.

There are stark double standards in the government’s response to cluster outbreaks. Where was this response when we saw the outbreak in McDonald’s franchises in the northern suburbs? Where was this response when we saw over 100 people test positive in connection to Cedar Meats in the west?

We must also ask why the state government has split “hardship payments” for affected residents into the two groups of deserving and undeserving by giving $1500 to employed people and $750 to unemployed people? Furthermore, a “hardship payment” does not cover the risk of workers losing their jobs because of this forced lock-down.

One of the leading causes of spreading Coronavirus is insecure work conditions. When a worker has to choose between eating and paying rent and staying home without pay then there is no option to self-isolate. Workplaces that are not unionised are also less likely to provide the appropriate PPE for containing the spread of the virus.

There has been disturbing footage of families separated, visitors to the towers having to sleep on the floor, mothers unable to see newborn babies, segregated healthcare facilities, residents unable to get their needed medication (even if it is in their car), inadequate food, food left on the floor, food eaten by pigeons outside, and in one case a volunteer delivering essentials was beaten by a group of police officers. Instead of communicating personally to residents, they are given instructions over an a announcement system likened to The Hunger Games. The state government has also implied that the work of activists and volunteers was their own, such as the translations of important information!

Despite the racist lock-down and demonisation of public housing residents, it has been impressive to see activists and unionists mobilise to support residents. In particular, the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA) have stepped up to coordinate volunteers and donations from other organisations. AMSSA should be commended for their efforts and leadership.

We stand in solidarity against the stigmatisation of public housing residents. The state government needs to work with the residents of the nine public housing buildings to properly ensure that their needs are met and to work cooperatively in containing the virus.

The five demands of residents, “Voices from the Blocks”, are as of 7th July:

The nine towers are placed under Stage Three restrictions like the rest of Melbourne.

The state government must withdraw all 500 Police and Authorised officers from inside the public housing buildings.

The government must implement infection protection measures such as regular disinfection and cleaning of communal spaces, and distribution of masks.

The government must set up testing sites within walking distance of the nine public housing estates instead of inside of the public housing estates in order to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The government must coordinate services in support of current community led activities that are responding to residents’ food, medical, financial, mental health and social service needs.

Now, as of 11:59 pm on the 8th July, the rest of Metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire is also under Stage Three restrictions for the next six weeks. The Victorian government’s punitive response to containing the virus will surely continue. Even before the new lock-downs, as of 24th June, Victorian Police had issued 6,200 fines worth $10.3 million! This is 4,101 more fines worth $7.5 million than the state with the next highest amount of fines, Queensland! Congrats Daniel Andrews on containing the virus.

Next article – On the assault on CFMEU Officials

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