Flinders Street railway station, Melbourne (Photo: Getty Images)
Flinders Street railway station, Melbourne (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyJuly 9, 2020

Back to day one: A letter from Melbourne as lockdown begins, again

Flinders Street railway station, Melbourne (Photo: Getty Images)
Flinders Street railway station, Melbourne (Photo: Getty Images)

At midnight last night, metropolitan Melbourne returned to lockdown and is scheduled to stay there until late August. Melbourne-based New Zealander Joe Nunweek reports from a city finding itself once more in the grip of Covid-19.

On Monday morning I got a parking ticket. Previously I only used to use my car to try and get an hour or so out of town on weekends, and I would stow it four blocks away in a free parking street. Since March, I’d let it sit for weeks on end, untouched in a two-hour zone. No wardens out for miles.

Copping a fine, then, felt like some kind of particularly shitty high-water mark of normality, the kind of sign you clutch at more out of hope than reason. A day later, the Victorian premier Dan Andrews announced that the full metropolitan area of Melbourne would go back into a six-week lockdown, and I’m hammering this out 90 minutes away from that lockdown taking effect.

It should be clarified that a Melbourne lockdown looks a lot more like New Zealand’s level three, or maybe a hybrid level three and a half. You can still get takeaways and you can even take two or more stupid little walks a day. But you won’t be able to visit friends or family anymore apart from the provision of essential care, and most of the state’s kids may end up back in homeschooling.

A graphic showing the areas of Melbourne that will be required to go into lock down, behind Victorian premier Daniel Andrews on July 07, 2020. (Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

In the wider trans-Tasman environment it’s a sudden, frightening snapback from open pubs and home gatherings. Victoria has a larger population than New Zealand and, until now, fewer deaths. What happened?

The short answer isn’t a comforting one. Victoria’s sudden Covid-19 relapse – 134 new cases today, 191 the day before, close to a thousand active cases overall – isn’t anything special or deviant. There isn’t a Trump ethos here of letting the bodies fall where they may – Andrews’ Labor government evens out to be somewhere to the New Zealand coalition’s left on conversion therapy and tenancy law and somewhere to its right on pokies, if that makes sense.

To a certain point, the story is like South Australia’s or Thailand’s or anywhere else that dealt with the first wave well. We stopped moving, travelling, socialising and shopping for a while. Daily press conferences made earnest health technocrats our virtual pals. Returnees were asked, then required, to isolate for 14 days.

A boy pulls a curtain closed in an inner-city isolation hotel in Melbourne, March 30, 2020. (Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

In Victoria’s case (like elsewhere in Australasia) city hotels became arrival wards. Instead of enlisting trained and relatively well-paid state employees, private security firms awarded contracts by the state took people out for their walks, watched them come back from their ciggie breaks, and took their enquiries. These same companies that patrol municipal art galleries and free park concerts after dark were suddenly given a hand in administering a knife-edge public health emergency.

The workers were often casual and subcontracted – lowly-paid, pulling long hours, and sometimes under-trained in PPE and in dealing with people in confinement. They would drive or take public transport back to the suburbs. As restrictions eased, they could see family again, and they did.

As Ben Schneiders reported in The Age, the operators were selected without a tender process. As the state government’s subsequent genomic sequencing revealed, two outbreaks from two groups of guards at two hotels multiplied through social occasions, new workplaces, and new neighbourhoods. The state government has announced a $3 million inquiry into the debacle, which no doubt will shortly be plugging away through Zoom’s fog of pixels and glitch (Australian internet isn’t fast). Victoria is also swiftly moving to advertise for direct public sector employment of the equivalent of parole and prison officers.

The communities that formed the new clusters were failed by over-exposure to precarious work (another cluster here began in a meatpacking plant, an environment that’s been an easy breeding ground for Covid, from Texas to Tipperary). They were also failed by under-exposure to communication and education in their first language.

In March, the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia asked that an advisory committee be formed so that messages be devised especially for non-English speaking communities. A national health advisory committee echoed the concerns on May 21 and urged the federal and state governments to make up lost ground by urgently engaging cultural leaders and dispelling myths about the costs and citizenship requirements of getting tested. Official material wasn’t published or distributed in Tongan, Samoan, or Cook Islands Māori (the Pacific Island community in Melbourne’s west is substantial) until a fortnight ago.

Lines of healthcare professionals enter the North Melbourne Public Housing tower complex on July 08, 2020. (Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

It’s in this context that the Victorian government made its ugliest move prior to full lockdown, forcing a hard confinement on nine public housing towers in Melbourne’s inner north side on less than an evening’s notice. The towers are big, brutalist relics of the post-war era. Despite their hard edifices, communities of and between Indigenous Australians, refugees, and the long-term ill and vulnerable have been forged inside them.

The government had rightly identified that overcrowding and pre-existing vulnerabilities put the towers at particular health risk. However, the response was to forbid 3,000 occupants from leaving their small apartments under any circumstances, to station 500 police officers as armed guard, to block and scrutinise volunteer packages of food, milk powder and nappies. The move at once created a second and lower tier of community member – implicitly, out of class and race, a vector of plague – and made a show of closing one gate as several different horses had already bolted. No one I talked to really believed it would stop the city’s outbreak. Meanwhile, the tower residents, between themselves, translated Covid-19 material into 10 languages in 24 hours.

Ultimately, it’s not all on the government. Each day, Australian tabloid media searched for a new constituency with some unique moral ability to super-spread – returnees, “multiculturalism”, the masked-up and relatively well-distanced BLM marches. Meanwhile, vast shopping malls like Chadstone in Melbourne’s southeast filled with shoppers, unsheathed cheek-to-jowl as if Christmas had come early. I’ve tried to get fastidious about a mask for indoor spaces, but the most consistent users I’ve seen are either Gen Z or the visibly elderly and frail. The millennial/Gen X/boomer contingent in between mostly seem like they couldn’t care less.

Six weeks in lockdown will absolutely suck. I’m lucky to have housemates and still have a job. More unsettlingly though, I don’t sit here thinking “this could never happen back home”. New Zealanders are not immune to Covid, and we’re equally not immune to the casualisation and subcontracting of essential work or the marginalisation of communities that are already at risk. What will we do if Covid re-enters the community and does so in a suburb like Ōwairaka, Māngere or Cannons Creek? Are we ready to be kind again, even if we have to collectively sacrifice our hard-earned gains? Or will we keep pointing fingers and keep up the magical thinking? Now I know what the latter looks like.

Keep going!