“I just feel like we’re being treated like criminals.”
The harshest measure yet taken to control the spread of coronavirus in Australia caught around 3,000 public housing tenants in Melbourne by complete surprise.
Shan Berih wasn’t home when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews made the announcement late last Saturday.
“When I came back home I did see hundreds of cops everywhere, so it was really intimidating,” he told viewers of his fledgling YouTube show, Talking Trophies.
“It’s been getting more and more intense, people are really panicking.”
Shan and his friends shared their immediate reactions, as well as those of other young residents of the buildings, soon after the shock lockdowns at estates in Flemington and North Melbourne.
While the public had been told a day earlier that there had been an outbreak in North Melbourne, no cluster had been revealed at Flemington until the lockdown was imposed.
“What is going on is completely out of line, ridiculous. We do not need 500 officers guarding the nine towers. We need nurses, we need counsellors, we need interpreters,” one resident said.
“We weren’t told any information, they just shut us down, didn’t let us leave our houses.”
So how did the crisis escalate so rapidly, and what crucial mistakes have led to a second lockdown and stay at home orders being reimposed on millions of Melburnians?
A public health ‘bushfire’
Premier Daniel Andrews says the sharp rise in cases is partly due to a testing blitz
The Victorian Government has repeatedly described its pandemic response as like fighting a public health bushfire.
But before a fire takes hold, it needs a source of fuel to enable its spread, and some kind of trigger to ignite it.
In this instance, a fire that had been brought under control started shooting embers. And it started spreading in places that helped turbo-charge the resurgence the state is now fighting.
But it hasn’t been spreading via weddings and ski resorts as was seen earlier in the pandemic. Now, those who are being infected are more likely to be migrants, healthcare workers and warehouse and abattoir workers.
Some experts say we should have been able to prevent some of the problems we’re now trying to tackle.
The fuel at the start
With surveys showing a massive drop in the public’s willingness to embrace social distancing as restrictions eased, the conditions were present for the virus to once again take off.
Family virus clusters began cropping up in late May, starting with a cluster in the Melbourne suburb of Keilor Downs. They were some of the earliest signs something had gone wrong.
From there, cases continued to bubble in low numbers in Melbourne’s north and west, with family-to-family contact remaining the biggest source of infection.
The virus was now spreading through a very different community than during the first surge, with patients tending to be younger and more culturally diverse.
“I believe that we are beholden to look after our multicultural community,” says Professor Mary-Louise McLaws.(Supplied: UNSW)
“[In] shared homes with additional generations or just a large family, it can be very difficult to stop that single ember from continuing this bushfire,” says the University of NSW’s Professor Mary-Louise McLaws.
“We could have put [family clusters] out very rapidly had we gone to explain to them in their own language and to their further community what’s going on, so that if they see a spark, they act on it immediately with testing and keeping at home.”
Professor McLaws says the community is never to blame.
“It’s always the lack of leadership by epidemiologists, infection control experts, the government. We the people are only as good as the advice and the support that we’re given,” she says.
“I believe that we are beholden to look after our multicultural community. It has to be done with their culture, in their language, so they fully get it.”
On June 1 restrictions were eased in Victoria. Exactly two weeks later, daily infection numbers climbed back into the double digits, and continued to grow.
But while it seems the virus was able to spread quickly among and between families, that doesn’t appear to be where the first match was struck.
The spark that started a blaze
The first case of a security guard working in a quarantine hotel being infected was reported on May 27, at a similar time to the first family outbreaks being identified.
From there, infections spiralled to the point where at least 60 cases have now been linked to clusters at two hotels in Melbourne.
The hotel infections have been linked to spread in the community, including a family outbreak in south-eastern Melbourne.
But where the security guard cluster originated remained an unsolved mystery, until the Government revealed genetic research on the strains of coronavirus circulating in the community.
Minister Lisa Neville says the sheriff and Corrections Victoria are replacing security contractors in quarantine hotels.
The state’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton confirmed all of the strains were different from those found in the first wave: “There is no evidence of any original virus from February, March around currently,” Professor Sutton said last Tuesday.
Which means it most likely came from overseas.
Mandatory hotel quarantine is widely accepted to be one of the biggest factors that helped Australia flatten the curve the first time, but now it seems likely that a single failure in that program sparked a wave of cases far bigger than the first.
Some argue it was a mistake to entrust private security firms with the program because the industry is plagued by labour issues and sub-contracting.
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No details from the genomic study have been released by the Victorian Government, which has launched a judicial inquiry into the failures. It isn’t required to report back until September, many virus incubation periods away.
Professor McLaws says the Government should be more transparent about its workings.
“The more information, the better to the public because they feel well respected, they feel in control, they understand risks,” she says.
“Let us get a good idea about where it went wrong and how we can learn from this.”
The Victorian health department did not answer the ABC’s questions about the failings in hotel quarantine, and didn’t say if there were any legal reasons preventing more detail from being disclosed.
Inside the towers
The growing case numbers across Melbourne led to localised restrictions, which were expanded, until a serious outbreak was discovered last week among people living in close quarters with shared facilities.
The situation in the nine high-rise apartment buildings obviously had the potential to become a public health disaster.
Even with the major intervention, at least 6.2 per cent of residents in the towers have been infected, and health officials fear the worst-hit apartment building may eventually record an infection rate of 25 per cent. (For context, the average infection rate among overseas arrivals in Australia is less than one per cent.)
Outbreaks often occur in areas with many people living in close proximity like Melbourne’s public housing towers.(ABC News: Simon Winter)
But residents were furious at what they described as being left in the dark. Many were disturbed to be suddenly confronted by hundreds of police officers on Saturday afternoon.
Deka Ahmed, a resident in one of the North Melbourne towers, didn’t know about the cluster in her estate, so she wasn’t anticipating a lockdown.
“It wasn’t on the news, it wasn’t something that we were expecting,” she says. “All the other lockdowns … they were given a day, they could do their shopping and get what they needed.
“A lot of people have English as their second language, so just understanding what was going on was very difficult for many people. There’s a lot of elderly people that live by themselves in these estates.”
Many residents in locked down public housing buildings were suddenly confronted by hundreds of police officers on Saturday afternoon.(ABC News: Daryl Torpy)
Adam Bandt, the Greens leader and local MP for some of the estates, is now calling for an inquiry into complaints that health officials failed to engage with migrant communities appropriately.
The Greens want a list of alleged incidents examined, including allegations that a mental health check was not done for a woman who had threatened self-harm, and that residents waited several days for urgent medication.
The Victorian Council of Social Services has also called for more sensitivity and proportionality in the response.
A spokesperson for Victoria’s health department told the ABC that additional measures had been taken with public housing since the state of emergency was first declared, including supplying hand sanitiser and regular cleaning.
“Cleaning services have been ramped up with a schedule of complete deep sanitation cleans at all high rise public housing sites in Melbourne, three additional pandemic cleaning crews, and updated coronavirus Infection Control Protocols and training sessions for cleaners,” the spokesperson said.
“Any longer-term health recommendations emerging from Victoria’s experience of the coronavirus pandemic will be considered in due course.”
The record-breaking school
An outbreak at the Al Taqwa College which has links to the public housing towers is now one of the biggest recorded so far in the country.
There are connections between the college outbreak, the public housing towers, and a number of family outbreaks in Melbourne.
But it is difficult to determine which one started first.
Al-Taqwa College in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, has been hit by a large coronavirus cluster, with more than 100 infections linked back to the school.(ABC News: Gemma Hall)
While authorities expect Melbourne’s new stay-at-home order will eventually flatten the curve, there is potential for outbreaks to occur in high-risk settings.
Since Monday, at least 16 cases have been found among healthcare workers and their patients at five separate hospitals.
There have also been at least 13 cases in aged care, including 11 in staff of nursing homes, one resident of an aged care facility, and one home-based aged care worker.
Nursing homes have been the sites of Australia’s most devastating outbreaks, and keeping COVID-19 out of them is a top priority.
A third of all aged care recipients who have contracted the virus have died with COVID-19.
The virus is also spreading to more warehouses and abattoirs, including two cases in Meatworks this week.
Professor McLaws says we already understood the risks these kinds of environments posed. There have been serious outbreaks in German and US abattoirs, for instance, and among low-paid workers living in close quarters in Singapore and South Korea.
“We missed this as an opportunity to understand that anybody living in close communities in confinement … will be the spark to the fire,” she says.
Mistakes are inevitable during an unprecedented situation like this, she says, but we must make sure we don’t repeat them.
Is suppression a mistake?
Underpinning all this has been Australia’s strategy to suppress the virus, rather than completely eradicate it. The idea is to accept that the virus will bubble along at very low levels, with attention focussed on preventing serious outbreaks.
The strategy recognises that even if we tried to completely rid Australia of SARS-CoV-2, we could never be completely sure if we’d succeeded.
The virus does not behave in predictable ways, which means there is an element of luck in its management. Victoria’s first abattoir outbreak, for example, at Cedar Meats, was able to be snuffed out.
Professor Tony Blakely says Victoria needs to optimise its six-week lockdown by encouraging mask-wearing.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)
But the events of the past few weeks in Melbourne have highlighted how difficult it can be to catch an outbreak before it’s too late.
And once Melbourne is through another six weeks of stage three restrictions, nothing is stopping the cycle from repeating.
Some epidemiologists believe Australia should change course, and move to a more aggressive strategy.
Professor Tony Blakely from the University of Melbourne told the ABC he’d changed his position this week, and now believes elimination is the only option for Australia.
“When you have six states that have eliminated it, and possibly NSW really close, it just makes no sense for Victoria to just aim for suppression.
“I think it’s really important that Victoria has an explicit goal to achieve elimination and that we take a page out of the NZ in how that’s done.”
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Professor Blakely says Victoria needs to make better use of its six-week lockdown by tightening the definition of what “essential work” is allowed to continue, encouraging mask-wearing and keeping schools shut.
“Is six weeks enough? If we declare that goal in the first week and line our ducks up, then yes, we could achieve it,” he says, but there would be less than a 50-50 chance of that happening unless restrictions are further tightened from level three.
Professor McLaws agrees. “I don’t support suppression because it’s too difficult, and it’s too difficult emotionally,” she says.
“The virus’s natural inclination is to grow and the virus is naturally a sociopath … It is highly opportunistic, and this is where we need to encourage the community to understand one person can make or break this.”
Igniting an inferno
Premier Daniel Andrews is sticking to the National Cabinet’s agreed strategy.
“What we’re trying to do is get this back into a contained space, into a suppressed space,” he said on Thursday.
“There will be some additional cases, some additional outbreaks, but they’ve got to be at a size and scale that you can manage … Not a size and scale that means you’ve got to go back to a stay at home order.”
But so long as Victoria is at risk of outbreaks, so is the entire country.
New South Wales is still recording small numbers of locally acquired infections, many of them in south-west Sydney.
And, as we’ve seen in Melbourne, it only takes one spark to ignite an inferno.
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“I just feel like we’re being treated like criminals.”