Residents inside the nine public housing towers under lockdown translated an information sheet about the restrictions and public health measures needed to contain Covid-19 into 10 different languages. This information was distributed within the affected buildings via social media and text messaging in just 24 hours.
Infectious disease physician Dr Chris Lemoh, who works with culturally and linguistically diverse communities at a Melbourne public hospital, said he had been in contact with several people inside the tower blocks in Flemington and North which are now being surveilled by police to ensure residents do not leave while they undergo Covid-19 testing following a cluster of cases in the buildings.
“Some residents put together an information sheet and they translated that into 10 written and five oral languages within 24 hours and distributed it among their networks in order to help get government messaging across,” Lemoh said. “I’ve been involved in public health projects like this and if the government had to do this on their own, it would have taken them at least six months to get that kind of translation work done.’
Lemoh said while he believes the lockdown was probably a necessary measure, it needed to be rolled out in such a way that the residents were seen as partners with government, not detainees of government.
“When I began working with people in these communities it was so eye-opening to see the reality of people’s lives and what they knew. I quickly realised my own health experience by comparison fell short,” Lemoh said.
“What they have is a huge amount of knowledge and depth of understanding about health. They were so willing to work with us to make people’s lives better and they had these huge resources of technical, professional and cultural knowledge.”
He said some residents in the towers have experience working with the World Health Organization and with aid organisations in their countries of origin.
“They are aware of what’s going on with Covid-19 here and with their families who may be overseas. What they may not have is access to information about decisions being made here as to why they were put into lockdown and where the clusters are. I am seeing a lot of people talk about disadvantage and vulnerability in the people in these buildings, but that vulnerability is more about their situations rather than who they are as people.
“These people are resilient, they’re strong, they’re resourceful, they are adaptable. They have the capacity to act, to help show the government health workers where the stairwells are and the main thoroughfares and where to put hand sanitiser.”
He added that he knew some of the health workers engaged to work with the residents to test them and to inform the government’s response, and he was confident those staff were doing all they could to ensure health measures were being rolled out respectfully
“They know the most important thing is to build trust, to earn trust, to deserve trust and to keep trust,” he said.
Najat Mussa lives with two brothers and her mother, who is from Eritrea, in one of the towers in Flemington. The first she knew that her building was in lockdown was when she went downstairs and was met by 20 police officers and told she needed to go back to her apartment. More than two days into the lockdown, she had still only seen police, and no community services workers or health workers had knocked on her door. She said her mother was scared of the police presence, and as a result Mussa was trying to calm her mother and other relatives who live in the building. Police knocked on her door at 8pm on Sunday night to tell Mussa and her family they would receive a Covid-19 test at 10am Monday, but by 2pm Mussa still had not been tested.
“The real question is, ‘why were the police not briefed before they were sent in?’ Because all the police I spoke to when I tried to ask them questions told me they also didn’t know anything, that they were as confused as I was,” she said.
Mussa said she wanted to be clear that she and others she had spoken to on social media supported the lockdown and the need to contain the virus and be tested, but the way it had been carried out was wrong.
The only assistance she had received from government was a food package where everything except for two items – weetbix and jam – were expired. Even the tinned tomatoes were expired, she said. Any fresh food she had received had been organised by community groups that had nothing to do with government, she said.
Mussa said there was a lot of expertise in the building which the government had failed to draw on. “I know three nurses in my building and four aged care workers,” she said. “We have a lot of health professionals in here and they are helping to spread the message to other residents. Especially to elderly people who don’t know what’s going on. Because I have not seen one community worker or social services worker and we are now into the third day of lockdown.”
She said she is still unclear how long the building will remain in strict lockdown, and if the building would move to a lockdown in line with hotspot suburbs where residents are allowed outside for exercise, work, and essential services such as food and healthcare.
Daniel Reeders, a health promotion expert with experience working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Melbourne, said he believed the lockdown was necessary but he was “staggered” that the government had chosen to send in hundreds of police as a first step.
“Police would normally be the last resort,” he said. “I would want to see social workers, community health workers and refugee and humanitarian services in first. And I’m just astonished that no one at the department of housing seemed to have had that realisation. Shutdown might be necessary and human services staff might be called on eventually but they should have been first in.”
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