Public housing tower in North Melbourne (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Last week, many residents in Melbourne’s public housing towers only found out they’d been forced into lockdown when busloads of police began appearing outside their windows.

Nor Shanino, a youth worker who grew up in one of the Flemington towers said his phone lit up. The Ubuntu Project, an advocacy organisation for African-Australian youth he’d recently set up saw its Instagram follower count swell, and its inbox was soon flooded.

Shanino spent the next 24 hours liaising with officials and co-ordinating community organisations in order to reassure and inform residents and make sure they were fed. He’s slept about three hours a night for the past week.

A groundswell of support

Since the weekend, hundreds of volunteers, mostly young, mostly from Melbourne’s migrant and refugee communities, have dropped everything and come to support residents in lockdown.

Within hours, messages were spreading through Instagram and Twitter on how to share support. Volunteers in Melbourne were buying food and other supplies. It hasn’t been a structured or hierarchical group, but rather an organic response that has harnessed the viral power of social media.

One particularly prominent group has been the Australian Muslim Social Services Association’s Youth Connect. By Wednesday, they’d run out of space for new food donations.

Other groups, like Sikh Volunteers Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre helped provide meals to residents in lockdown. Like Shanino, many have been working tirelessly since the weekend.

That young people stepped up to support some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable communities didn’t surprise Australian Catholic University social researcher Jen Couch.

“From the start of the pandemic, young people from migrant communities were providing for their families and communities,” Couch told Crikey.

“They were translators, information sharers, about the virus, about how to keep safe.”

Mariam Koslay, who’s volunteered at the towers, agrees.

“Young people do amazing things, and we don’t even know about it.”

Picking up where the state failed

The work done by volunteers has also highlighted many of the problems with the hard lockdown.

“If it wasn’t for these volunteers, people with jobs and money, living in Australia in 2020, would have starved,” Shanino said.

Critics of the lockdown have pointed to problems distributing food, and a heavy police presence. Residents were put into lockdown without an opportunity to shop for essentials. When the government provided food, some of it had pork — a shocking oversight for an area with a high Muslim population. Others were given food that had expired.

Shanino says on the first day of lockdown he spoke to an official from the Department of Health and Human Services who told him, confidently, that they had food ready. When he asked if the food was Halal, he was met with an awkward silence.

“He said ‘let me get back to you on that’.”

Volunteers also encountered delays getting food and medicine to residents and had supplies confiscated by police and State Emergency Services. Protocols for distributing supplies are inconsistent from tower to tower.

Meanwhile, there are stories of a mother being separated from her premature newborn, cancer patients struggling to get support, and diabetics running out of insulin.

An avoidable disaster

The problems with the lockdown haven’t arisen overnight.

In 2013, Victoria Police settled a racial discrimination case over profiling of young African men in Flemington.

Shanino says while the relationship between volunteers and the police guarding the towers has been largely positive, and that everyone wants to make sure things are safe, history can’t be easily forgotten.

“There’s a lot of history, anger and trauma here.”

“When a copper stands in front of you, you remember that officer calling you a monkey, you remember being pulled over by them four times in a week.”

The legacy of over-policing in these communities is symbolic of the disconnect between many residents and authorities. It’s a gap that people like Shanino, who can speak to both bureaucrats and officials while being a relatable figure for those in the towers, are trying to fill.

But that disconnect with migrant communities has been a tragic feature of Victoria’s (and Australia’s) failures at this stage of the pandemic. As Crikey reported two weeks ago, a lack of diversity in health bureaucracy and poor messaging to multicultural communities has hindered Victoria’s response to the virus.

With the latest tower lockdown, we’re seeing the impacts of that, with largely young volunteers doing a lot of the heavy-lifting to make sure a scared, hungry and over-policed community gets fed and informed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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