On July 4, Australia's second-largest city went into lockdown. But residents of nine public housing towers were singled out for even stricter treatment, leading many to suspect discrimination.
In the late afternoon of July 4, dozens of police vehicles pulled up at a public housing tower in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city. It was, witnesses said, like a scene from an action movie — but instead of responding to a terrorist threat, the officers were responding to a coronavirus spike.
Minutes earlier, Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria, had announced expanded stay-at-home orders that would begin just before midnight. For one group, though, the lockdown would be immediate, and far more restrictive. Hence the sudden police presence at the north Melbourne tower and eight others, housing 3,000 people in all.
While most Melbourne residents could leave their homes briefly to exercise and shop for necessities, the residents of the towers were effectively placed, without warning, under house arrest for up to 14 days. Authorities said the towers had "explosive potential" because of their population density, but the concentration of infections was not out of line with rates in other areas of the city, and private residential towers were not treated with similar alarm.
To the public housing residents, many of them immigrants, it felt like discrimination. Complaints flooded the ombudsman in Victoria, who is conducting an investigation.
Melbourne's broader lockdown — one of the longest and strictest in the world — finally ended October 28 after 111 days. But while the rest of the city celebrates its freedom and what many see as a triumph over the virus, the residents of the towers are still contending with feelings of trauma, anger and confusion.
Here are some of their stories.
Loss of freedom, loss of life
Ebyon Hassan, 32, was still foggy from a nap when she peered out the window after receiving a frantic phone call from her sister.
"It was like a nightmare," Hassan, who is originally from Somalia, said outside her building in early October. "There were so many cop cars. They had taken over the car parks. There were so many lights. And you think, 'What have I done?'"
Hassan's father was out for his afternoon walk. He was healthy at the time, though prone to pneumonia. "So we had been very vigilant," she said.
Still, by July 7, three days after the lockdown began, he had tested positive.
"No one came to check on him until the 16th," Hassan said. He was given the option of leaving their apartment and being isolated elsewhere. But he kept thinking about his best friend, who had never returned after contracting the virus and being removed from his home.
"My father was a very spiritual man, and so afraid of dying alone," Hassan said. "He refused to go."
On July 23, a few days after the building's strict 14-day lockdown lifted, he finally agreed to go to the hospital. He died a week later. He was 62.
Hassan is devastated by the loss of her father, but she is also reeling from a sense of betrayal at the way she and her community were treated. (Government officials declined requests for interviews.)
"It looked like cages, like a prison," she said. "We thought we were in a free country. Covid taught us that we aren't free."
'It was the community itself that rallied'
Almost immediately after the police arrived, Hiba Shanino, a 21-year-old legal practice student whose parents are from Eritrea, began to hear from people inside her building who were panicking.
Some had run out of medication. Others had no food, or were receiving items that were not halal, or in some cases expired. The state health and human services department was not providing information or help.
Mohammed Yousef, the father of a toddler and an 8-month-old, said the surprise of the lockdown didn't allow for parents to prepare.
"We didn't have time to get the supplies we needed, like diapers or formula," he said. "It was a shock. There were 500 police surrounding us, like we were criminals."
Unable to use communal laundry facilities, families were given bags to leave dirty clothes outside their doors to be washed. Hassan, the woman whose father later died, said her family never got their laundry back.
"What we had, those clothes, those are the clothes we had," she said. "We can't go shopping for more. We weren't allowed to receive packages. What could we do?"
Shanino, who was not at home when the lockdown began, decided not to return. She turned to others in the community who were looking to fill the gaps, and a local mosque soon began organising deliveries of food and other necessities to the towers.
She said that no one she knew argued that there should not have been a lockdown of some sort. "But it's how it was done," she added. "The people who were making the decisions had never been to this place before. Why did they treat us that way? Why was it so disorganised? Why were we given no notice when the rest of the city was treated fairly, with respect?"
"They think we're incapable," she said, "but really it was the community itself that rallied and made sure people were looked after. We did it ourselves."
Locked in, locked out
Barry Berih, 26, who was born in Australia to Eritrean immigrant parents, said his mother was at work when the lockdown began.
"At about 7pm, she called me and said, 'I can't get back into the house. The police won't let me in.'" Her driver's license still had a previous address on it, and she was denied access.
"She couldn't get her work clothes or anything. I wasn't allowed to bring them down to her," said Berih, who works as a youth counselor. She was not allowed back in the building for two weeks.
Another resident, Noah Abdullahi, 18, said that his two brothers, both university students, also were not home at the time of the lockdown, and that police wouldn't let them back in.
"They both spent two weeks sleeping on the couch at my auntie's house," he said. Neither was able to study because their aunt did not have a computer.
Early in the lockdown, Berih's brother tested positive for the virus. "For my mum, she was very worried," he said, "not being able to be there for us." Everything that people in the building knew about the prevalence of the virus came via word of mouth.
"Some people got sick and died," Berih said. "Some of their loved ones weren't allowed out to their funerals."
Berih eventually contracted the virus as well, but neither he nor his brother became seriously ill. The greater toll was on his mental health.
"As migrants, many people who live here come from war-torn countries," he said. "They felt that Australia was a safe space for them. Many of them have been here for 30 years. They've raised their kids here. I was born here. And now that this is over, it isn't the only challenge. It's how do we resolve this, after the fact?"
Written by: Besha Rodell and Christina Simons
Photographs by: Christina Simons
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