Australia

'It's horrific': Residents of Melbourne's locked-down towers are struggling to receive essential supplies

Concerns remain for 3,000 people shut inside nine public housing towers in Melbourne. Source: SBS/AAP

Residents in Melbourne's nine locked-down public housing towers have told SBS News they are struggling to receive essential supplies as they adapt to an initial five-day lockdown without warning.

As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews insists the hard lockdown of nine public housing towers is not a punishment, residents inside say they are struggling to access crucial supplies.

Nine towers in Flemington and North Melbourne have been locked down since Saturday in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, with 3,000 residents unable to leave their apartments for any reason for at least five days.

Mr Andrews said thousands of meals, along with hundreds of toiletry packs and care packs for children have been distributed to residents.

The government is also delivering bread and milk after the staples were missing from hampers on Sunday.

Victorian Police officers and health workers are seen outside a public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne.
Victorian Police officers and health workers are seen outside a public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne.
AAP

But some residents have reported difficulties in receiving all sorts of supplies.

On day three of the public housing estate lockdown, single mother Amina, who does not want to be identified by her full name, said she reached breaking point.

"I don't think I can handle it anymore," she told SBS News.

"I am frustrated and angry. I wasn't prepared at all." 

The mother-of-seven in one of the Flemington public housing towers said it has been particularly hard to care for her infant without access to essential supplies like nappies and fresh milk.

Workers in hazardous material overalls are seen outside of a public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne.
Workers in hazardous material overalls are seen outside of a public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne.
AAP

"We are in two bedrooms with eight of us," she said, whilst comforting her crying eight-week-old infant child.

"They [the children] want fresh milk. They want toast. They want a normal life."

She said the kids have been living off meals of Weet-Bix breakfast cereal - without milk.

"I can't keep them fed anymore ... I don't know how to explain. I didn't expect this."

At 4pm, Amina said she received the first delivery of food supplies, after calling the health department hotline and sending four text messages.

But she said the family has yet to be tested for COVID-19. 

"We haven't been tested. And the kids are getting frustrated. My sixteen-year-old said she doesn't want to be tested anymore because she has been waiting [from] Saturday." 

Left to right: Brotherhood of St Laurence's Polly Graham, Mohamad Yusuf and Hannah Ibrahim say a number of residents have yet to receive supplies.
Left to right: Brotherhood of St Laurence's Polly Graham, Mohamad Yusuf and Hannah Ibrahim say a number of residents have yet to receive supplies.
SBS

'We're sharing what we have'

The Yusuf family is in a neighbouring tower under lockdown.

Father-of-three Mohamad Yusuf said residents in the building are sharing what supplies they have, but the fear of contagion is a constant concern.

"We only have the supplies we already had in the house on Saturday and now we are running very low."

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At least 53 cases have been linked to nine public housing towers under lockdown as the state records its 20th consecutive day of double-digit growth.

"I'm helping out my elderly neighbours. Getting some information to them. Getting some essential stuff like sugar and milk to them. We're sharing [our supplies].

"The virus could spread. But when people don't have adequate essentials, we have to go out and share stuff. You are promoting the spread of the virus."

Polly Graham from the charity Brotherhood of St Laurence said she has been fielding calls from distressed residents who are trying to adapt to a lockdown they had no time to prepare for.

Ms Graham said she has had to personally intervene to deliver a late-night supply of baby formula for a mother who had run out on Sunday evening.

In another case, a mother was urgently seeking medication for her son who has a condition which he has been hospitalised for numerous times in the past year.

"She wasn't able to get medicine for her son. I had to contact a local politician to call Daniel Andrews' office and to beg him to take action for this particular mother. And it was only this morning that she got the medicine. That is about 35 hours after she started begging for medicine for her son. "

Need for culturally-appropriate food

Whilst the state government said it has been distributing food since Saturday when the lockdown was announced, some residents have reported that some of the products had expired.

Community groups have stepped in to respond to demand.

President of the Australian African Association, Nasa Ige, said community members have been sourcing culturally-appropriate food from nearby restaurants.

About 1000 Food Bank hampers have been distributed to residents in the locked public housing towers, but not everyone has received the supplies.
About 1000 Food Bank hampers have been distributed to residents in the locked public housing towers, but not everyone has received the supplies.
AAP

Mr Ige said a large percentage of residents in the public housing towers are refugees from war zones in Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea.  

"As a community, we are here to support. We speak to the residents directly and find out what they can eat.

"We write down [what they can eat] and go to nearby East African restaurants. We speak to the owners and we ask can they cook what these residents can eat."

The Victorian Trades Hall partnered with social enterprise Moving Feast to provide halal meals.

Mr Ige said he has been helping to co-ordinate the provision of supplies and to provide information for residents who do not speak English.

Painkillers are one of the most requested items, Mr Ige said.

Australian African Association president Nasa Ige says members of the community have stepped in to provide translation and arrange the delivery of meals.
Australian African Association president Nasa Ige says members of the community have stepped in to provide translation and arrange the delivery of meals.
SBS

Hannah Ibrahim in the Flemington public housing towers said she and other residents are more than happy to be tested and are waiting to receive test kits.

But in the meantime, the lack of masks, gloves and hand sanitiser has made it distressing for residents who move through shared spaces to collect food left in the foyer.

"We are more than happy to be tested. We want this virus under control. Just not like this," she said.

Ms Ibrahim said she would like more resources directed to the provision of health workers, social workers and translators.

'We are sitting ducks'

Another resident of a public housing building in Flemington said she has been waiting for information about when she can have her daily medication delivered.

"We got one letter delivered this morning telling us to stay in our units and eventually we would be tested and they've hung one mask on our door," Janine Kelly said.

The 50-year-old has the lung condition emphysema, which causes shortness of breath. She is anxious to hear more frequent updates.

She has tried calling the health department hotline regarding her medication, but still "hasn't heard a word".

Of the 127 new cases in Victoria on Monday, 16 were detected in the public housing towers that have been locked down.
Of the 127 new cases in Victoria on Monday, 16 were detected in the public housing towers that have been locked down.
AAP

A box of food was delivered to her unit just after 5pm, but before then there was "no food, no instructions".

"It's not something that we can go 'oh, yes, maybe, no' we'll just wait till you get it together. It's horrific," she said.

"It's scary to think it's spreading ... it’s like we are sitting ducks, I am terrified."

She added that she hasn’t had the opportunity to do a coronavirus test as of Monday evening.

"We just want answers, and everyone is asking the same thing: where’s the test? Please, can you hurry up and get us tested."

In a statement on Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services said they were aware of some delays with donations and deliveries, but were working to ensure food and other supplies made it to the residents.

With Maani Truu

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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