MELBOURNE, Australia – The sudden closure of nine public housing towers in Melbourne this summer, leaving 3,000 people without adequate food and medication and access to fresh air during the city’s second wave of coronavirus, was in violation of human rights laws. an investigation showed.
The report, released Thursday by the ombudsman in the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, said residents were effectively placed under house arrest without warning for 14 days in July. It robbed them of essential support, as well as access to activities such as outdoor exercise, the report said.
The lockdown was not “compatible with the human rights of residents, including their right to humane treatment when their liberty is deprived,” wrote Deborah Glass, the Victorian ombudsman. The report recommended the state government to publicly apologize to tower residents and to improve relationships and procedures at similar high-risk accommodations in the city so that they would be better prepared for future outbreaks.
While Australia has received worldwide praise for successfully slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the country, the report was a damning rebuke to state officials’ decision to take tough action against public housing residents who said they were incarcerated and felt traumatized and suspected of discrimination. Many described it as a “nightmare”.
“We grew up here; we were born here, ”one resident, not named by his real name in the report, told investigators. “It felt like, ‘Are we in a safe place anymore, aren’t we?’” He added. “We felt unworthy.”
The report also recalled that such measures were seldom applied in an equitable manner and were very costly for those economically disadvantaged. Many of the towers’ residents are minorities or immigrants. Some residents noted that police officers swarmed around the towers, making it difficult to leave.
Speaking of the residents of the towers, the report noted: “Some had endured civil wars and dictatorships before settling in Australia, some even survived the torture at the hands of their former state. For them, the overwhelming police presence was particularly traumatic. “
When a second wave threatened to disrupt Australia’s progress in destroying the pandemic, the Victorian state prime minister, Daniel Andrews, forced what would become one of the toughest and longest lockdowns in the world. It lasted 111 days which frustrated the already exhausted and winter-weary Melburnians and earned him both vitriol and support from the audience.
Mr Andrews said the government had no choice and that its actions were based on the best public health advice.
“There is no rulebook for this, nobody in Victoria has done this before,” he said at a press conference in Melbourne on Thursday. “We took the steps the experts said were necessary to save lives.”
Investigators found that although the state’s acting chief health officer had signed the order to approve the lockdown, she was unaware of the government’s plans to execute it so suddenly. The report said she was given just 15 minutes to consider the terms of various documents and their human rights implications before the details of the lockdown were made public.
“We may be tempted during a crisis to view human rights as expendable to save lives,” the report warned. “This thinking can lead to dangerous territory.”
Ebyon Hassan, 32, who lives in one of the towers in the North Melbourne suburb and lost her father to the coronavirus in late July, said of the report, “It’s no surprise that human rights have been violated.”
She and other residents said they were extremely disappointed by the lack of government services in the wake of the lockdown.
“Everyone is just trying to heal and recover,” she added. “An apology is the least they can do.”
Australian officials have hoped their treatment of the virus would allow for a “Covid-normal” Christmas. The state of Victoria, which effectively eliminated the coronavirus for the second time in late November, has now disappeared for 48 days with no new locally transmitted cases.
But on Wednesday and Thursday, in sign of the persistence of the virus, a cluster of 17 new cases emerged on the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, ending the two-week streak of the city without new, locally transmitted infections. and the forced closure of some nursing homes.
Despite the report’s findings, the Victorian state government insisted that its actions had been “integral” to slow the spread of the disease.
The authorities “acted lawfully at all times and within the applicable legal framework,” Richard Wynne, the planning and housing minister, said in a statement released Thursday.
“We make no apologies for saving lives,” he added.