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Explained: How a lockdown of public housing in Melbourne breached human rights

The Victoria government refused to apologise for imposing the lockdown so suddenly, saying that it was in the best interest of the people.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 18, 2020 9:56:28 am
A playground is cordoned off with caution tape in front of a public housing tower, locked down in response to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Melbourne, Australia, July 8, 2020. (Reuters)

A hurried lockdown imposed on nine public housing towers in Melbourne, Australia due to a surge in coronavirus cases earlier this year was found to violate the human rights of around 3,000 tenants residing in the buildings, an ombudsman has found.

According to a report published by the ombudsman for the Australian state of Victoria, Deborah Glass, the public housing units were suddenly sealed on July 4, without giving residents time to prepare for the lockdown. As a result, many were left without food and medicines.

But the state government has refused to apologise for “saving people’s lives”. State Housing Minister Richard Wynne said that city authorities had to act immediately due to the “viciousness of the virus”.

Why were the nine public housing towers placed under an immediate lockdown?

In early July, Victoria’s most-populous state Melbourne was just beginning to experience a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. As the caseload continued to surge, worried city authorities began narrowing in on clusters of the deadly disease.

When around two dozen infections were traced back to the towers — the occupants of which were majorly low-income, immigrant families — authorities quickly swooped in to contain the outbreak. On July 4, health officials recommended a lockdown to commence in the area the next day, to give residents time to arrange for food and other essential items.

However, the residents were taken by surprise when Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, announced that the lockdown would commence that day at 4:00 PM and would last for up to two weeks.

Law enforcement officials were deployed outside the buildings and all 3,000 residents were confined to their apartments. While the lockdown was lifted in eight of the nine towers after five days, one building — 33 Alfred St — had to remain in lockdown for a full 14 days.

According to Ombudsman Deborah Glass, the state’s then-chief health officer, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, had a mere 15 minutes to consider and green light the lockdown. Diemen admitted that she was “quite terrified, to be honest, that we would see within a week many hundreds of cases” but added that delaying the lockdown by a day would not have made “a hugely significant difference”.

What did the state ombudsman say in her report?

While Glass acknowledged that the lockdown was needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus infection, she said that the sheer suddenness of it was not based on medical advice and thus, breached human rights rules.

“Many residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reason for it when large numbers of police appeared on their estate that afternoon,” she said. “We heard that initially there was chaos. Some people were without food and medicines. At the tower at 33 Alfred St, the focus of the investigation, residents waited more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision for fresh air.”

Speaking to reporters after releasing the report, Glass said that the lockdown was particularly traumatising for the residents of the buildings since many of them came from war-torn countries, where they were tortured at the hands of their states.

“The sight of police surrounding their buildings, government officials knocking at the door unexpected, was deeply traumatising, I think, for some of the people we spoke to,” she said, according to Australian broadcaster ABC.

She traced the decision to impose an immediate lockdown to a Crisis Council of Cabinet meeting at 1.45 pm on the day that the buildings were sealed. However, her requests to obtain documents from the meeting were denied.

Glass said that several government documents even suggested the inherent bias of lawmakers, who saw the public housing towers as a “hotbed of criminality and non-compliance”. “But the evidence was the vast majority were law-abiding people, just like other Australians,” she added.

She pointed out that in the months that followed, no lockdowns were imposed in the state without prior notice. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

What were the ombudsman’s recommendations for the Victorian government?

The ombudsman’s report recommended that the government of the state of Victoria apologise to the 3,000 residents of the nine towers, and acknowledge “the impact of their immediate detention on their health and wellbeing.”

She clarified that her findings were not a criticism of health officials in the state, but rather were meant to explicitly state the importance of considering human rights before taking drastic steps that could adversely impact thousands of people.

“Proper consideration of human rights before the lockdown began would have put health, not security, front and centre,” she said. “In a just society, human rights are not a convention to be ignored during a crisis.”

How has the Victoria government responded to the report?

The Victoria government refused to apologise for imposing the lockdown so suddenly, saying that it was in the best interest of the people.

“The primary objective of government is to protect the community… The human rights of people are not secondary at all. We absolutely have conformed with all of our legal obligations. There’s no question about that,” Housing Minister Richard Wynne said at a press conference on Thursday.

The government’s response included in the ombudsman report said that it was being held to an “unduly high standard of administrative behaviour in the emergency circumstances”. It claimed that many of the extreme actions that have been criticised were done in order “to prioritise the protection of human life” and were justified”, and were thus justified.

What was happening elsewhere in Melbourne?

Just days after the towers were sealed, the entire city of Melbourne was placed under lockdown as cases continued to rapidly rise. The city was recording around 100 cases per day at the time.

The city-wide lockdown commenced on July 9 and lasted over 100 days, BBC reported. While residents of Melbourne were ordered to stay at home and observe a nightly curfew, they were allowed to leave their homes for permitted reasons — a privilege that the occupants of the towers did not enjoy.

Eventually, the lockdown spread to other parts of the state as cases began rising outside city borders. While the stay-at-home orders were a dividing measure, they eventually helped to bring down the case rate from over 700 per day to zero, a BBC report stated.

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