COMMENT: Anti-lockdown anger has manifested itself in Melbourne through three weekends of protests. So, are the demonstrators flouting the law at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons? Or is an uproar against this particular lockdown warranted? Alice Matthews investigates The Case for lockdowns.
For the third weekend in a row protesters have marched in Melbourne to vent their anger at the lockdown. While it’s easy to write them off as conspiracy theorists, those demonstrators are just the visible fringe of a growing community feeling of anger. Melbourne’s enduring one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, surpassing even that of Wuhan in China where the virus began. Victorians are understandably demoralised, fatigued, and frustrated.
Has the lockdown been too strong, for too long? And is Victoria’s second wave a result of bad management? Or bad luck?
This week on The Case we’re looking at the three things we need to try and understand when it comes to Victoria’s second wave; hotel quarantine, the lockdown, and the roadmap out of restrictions.
Victoria’s outbreak could have happened anywhere, right? Was a second wave inevitable somewhere, with Melbourne drawing the short straw?
Professor Nancy Baxter is head of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. She says while bad luck played its role in the spread, “We, to some extent, made our own luck by not having the adequate controls over the hotel quarantine when it was started”.
Inadequate controls is an understatement. The Victorian government chose not to use the police and the defence force to guard hotel quarantine, opting instead to employ private contractors. That choice was catastrophic.
An inquiry into hotel quarantine has heard that guards were not trained in infection control; they were working side jobs with symptoms, commuting to work with COVID-positive colleagues, and reportedly sleeping with guests. Guests were even allowed into the community while they waited for test results and some of those who tested positive were getting taxis and Ubers back to the hotels from their emergency room check-ups.
“I can say that definitely yes... this all came from hotel quarantine,” Professor Baxter said.
In fact, the inquiry into the bungle revealed 99 per cent of the cases in Victoria's second wave can be traced to hotel quarantine. But while cases were ballooning, premier Daniel Andrews was blaming big families in the outer suburbs for the spread.
In a June 20th press conference, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said, “largely, the numbers are being driven by families – families having big get-togethers and not following the advice around distancing and hygiene.”
When the premier talks of large families in the outer suburbs, Melbournians know that means big ethnic families. And while families can spread COVID-19, that wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much if the government hadn’t messed up hotel quarantine in the first place.
To make matters worse, the contact tracing that was meant to track the spread was under-resourced and poorly designed. If contact tracing had done its job from the outset, then Victoria might look more like New South Wales right now, instead of Wuhan in lockdown.
So now that we're here, has the lockdown been proportionate and justifiable?
Certainly not in some cases.
While COVID-19 was spreading in wealthy areas, nine public housing towers - two with no confirmed cases at all - were put under state-sanctioned detention, stricter than anything we've seen in this country. With no warning, residents were cut off from medical treatment, appropriate food, baby formula, fresh air, cleaning supplies; their basic human rights.
Hannah Fesseha is a Lawyer at Inner Melbourne Community Legal and has been working on the ground with tower residents. She says the housing commission lockdown "in the purest legal sense was a detention, people were detained, their liberty was absolutely denied".
And in perhaps the most telling symbol of that detention was the 'wire fence exercise yard' the Victorian government put up at one of the towers.
Ms Fesseha, who advocated for its removal, refers to it as a cage.
"To be told you can walk around in a cage that's being surveilled by police, with members of the wider public looking in [and] trying to figure out what's going on, to have to walk around like a zoo animal is incredibly demeaning, it is inhumane and should never have happened," Ms Fesseha said.
She says there were complete double standards in the way lockdown rolled out in Melbourne. "The rest of Victoria got notice, [and a] clear explanation of restrictions," she said. "The residents of public housing towers were not given any notice, only just [the] press conference."
In a statement on June 4, the Premier saidthat, “the close confines and the shared community spaces within these large apartment blocks means this virus can spread like wildfire. And just like fire, we need to put a perimeter around it to stop it from spreading.”
Before Andrews’ press conference had even concluded, hundreds of police officers had descended upon the estates to implement the lockdown.
“Closing the towers down like that, that is shameful,” says Professor Nancy Baxter. “Would you have done that in some swish part of Melbourne?”
Across metropolitan Melbourne, a curfew from 8pm to 5am was enforced and police issued nearly $3 million dollars in fines to people breaching it. The premier now admits that the curfew wasn’t implemented on health advice or even a request from police.
The curfew is now one hour shorter but it won’t be lifted until October 26 at the earliest, and even then cases need to sit below five new (based on a daily average across 14 days) and five unknown (based on an average across 14 days). If that’s the measure, then NSW would also be in lockdown right now, instead of being close to business as usual.
“Why are we in such a strict lockdown [and] for so long?” asks Professor Baxter. “In order for us to open up to the rest of Australia...our numbers have to get exceptionally low, like low to the point that not many jurisdictions have been able to get after a second wave.”
Victoria’s roadmap for coming out of lockdown looks overly cautious. It looks like the plan for a state going for elimination, though the premier would never call it that.
Professor Baxter says if the plan works, “it’s going to be the only place in the world that’s succeeded at it…. So from a public health perspective, it’s interesting to watch.”
Getting cases right down while the lockdown is still in place might also be the most surefire way to avoid a third wave and control the virus. And let’s face it, putting Victoria into lockdown again would be an absolute nightmare.
But what if the pursuit of zero cases ends up doing more damage than the virus itself?
Victoria is projected to lose more than 300,000 jobs as a result of the pandemic. That’s 300 thousand people who might not be able to pay the rent or the mortgage and could be at increased risk of mental health problems.
Even still, the most recent Newspoll shows Premier Daniel Andrews has a 62 per cent approval rating. Though dissatisfaction with his handling of the crisis has risen from around 17 per cent in April to around 35 per cent now.
We're at a point now, where government action to protect us from COVID-19 is being weighed against the livelihoods it's destroyed. Some anti-government fringe groups are counting the cost of those actions and demonstrating. Doing that in lockdown is obviously not on and we can't ignore the fact that some of those protesters think COVID-19 doesn't even exist.
But looking at how this has all played out it seems Victorians did their part, and their government didn't.
There is every reason to be angry about that.
During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons.
Between 5am and 9pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative. The full list of restrictions can be found here.
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