Preserving community health, wellbeing and dignity during a public health crisis
It has been almost two months since nine public housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne were placed in a hard lockdown. In that time residents have continued to share their experiences and concerns about the ‘enforcement first’ response, and advocate for trauma-informed, community-centered approaches to public health crises going forward.
As the towers fall under Women’s Health West’s (WHW) catchment, we were able to provide family violence support services during the hard lockdown. Since then, we have also written a submission to the Victorian Government echoing the concerns of residents, advocating for community-centred, health-based responses to public health crises, and providing recommendations for the implementation of future COVID-19 related crisis measures in Victoria.
Our submission ‘Learning from the hard lockdown: Preserving community health, wellbeing and dignity during a public health crisis’ was written in collaboration with the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, and our peak body Gender Equity Victoria. It is informed by our gender and public health expertise, with a focus on preserving community health, wellbeing and dignity.
But most importantly the submission is informed by the voices, stories and lived experiences of the communities from the Flemington and North Melbourne public housing estates. As the first Victorians to experience a COVID-19 hard lockdown, these residents are in the best position to offer expertise and insights to inform future practice and to minimise the harm caused by emergency public health measures.
Learning from the hard lockdown
This is an unprecedented situation, and each day brings new challenges and dilemmas. Any response must balance the need to control this pandemic with the broader health, safety and wellbeing of communities. This requires that the rights and social welfare of the people most impacted by this pandemic and subsequent public health responses, are always at the front of our minds.
The Government’s lack of response to residents’ early requests to introduce preventative measures, as well as the subsequent implementation of a hard lockdown, that occurred without warning and markedly distinct from the restrictions placed on other Victorians, was profoundly harmful. The ‘enforcement first’ implementation of targeted restrictions for public housing residents was widely viewed as discriminatory and stigmatising.
Instead of being approached as a strong community, with a history of concern and proactive advocacy for the health and wellbeing of their neighbours, residents describe being treated with prejudice and distrust. Over the following hours and days, residents and community advocates reported a lack of clear protocol, communication, and support which exacerbated community distress and confusion.
It is important that we learn from these accounts. A public health crisis is best addressed with a health, welfare and community-centred response. This includes immediate presence of health authorities, community health workers and services that already work with and are embedded in the affected community. Trust, goodwill, and strong two-way communication are vital. Community members need to be part of the response, planning, implementation and communication of strategy.
Women’s Health West recommend that the Victorian Government implement the following public health measures, in the event of a future COVID-19 hard lockdown in Victoria, or similar event:
- Directly and equitably engage women in the planning and implementation of gender responsive COVID-19 public health interventions.
- Ensure that community leaders and community organisations are central to the planning, implementation, and communication of any extraordinary public health measures introduced in their community.
- Establish clear public health protocols and partnerships to ensure that that future COVID-19 emergency measures are informed by and jointly implemented with community-based experts and networks and tailored to holistic community health and welfare priorities.
In addition to participating in the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into the hard lockdown at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne, we also recommend that:
- The Victorian Government commit to an independent review of the July 2020 public housing hard lockdown, in its entirety, and ensure that affected community members are encouraged and adequately supported to document their experiences, feedback and recommendations, to inform guidelines for improved practice.
We have also compiled a series of resources translated into various community languages, with information about family violence during lockdown, as well as information about your rights and sexual and reproductive health during COVID-19.