Lockdown Of Nine Public Housing Towers In Victoria Breached Human Rights, Report Finds

A report released by an ombudsman on December 17th, has revealed that the lockdown of nine public housing towers in the Australian state of Victoria this summer breached human rights laws. The lockdown, which took effect suddenly on July 4th, left more than 3,000 residents confined to their apartments without adequate food, medication, or access to fresh air. Many residents felt that they had been discriminated against, describing the entire ordeal as a “nightmare.” Despite recommendations from the ombudsman, the State Government has refused to apologize, claiming that its actions were necessary and that the entire process was conducted lawfully.

According to the report, which was written by Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass, the timing of the lockdown “was not based on direct health advice” but rather “a decision made by the state government,” and was in clear violation of human rights. While senior health officials had agreed that the towers should be locked down to control the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak within the buildings, they believed that they would allow residents to gather any supplies they may need before being placed in confinement the next morning. Instead, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews announced on the afternoon of July 4th that the lockdown would commence immediately, leaving residents confused, fearful and ill-prepared. The Guardian reported that while most of the nine towers had their lockdowns lifted after five days, residents of the worst-affected tower had to complete the full two-week hard lockdown. They were not allowed outside until the second week. 

The restrictions imposed felt particularly insensitive and discriminative towards the towers’ residents. “A lot of people felt they were treated like criminals,” said Awil Hussein to ABC News, one of the residents of the towers. The investigation uncovered government documents that suggested that such estates were “a hotbed of criminality and non-compliance,” despite evidence that “the vast majority were law-abiding citizens, just like other Australians.” The strict measures came as a shock not only to Mr. Hussein, but to many of the other residents as well. “Most of the residents found out about it when they saw uniformed police officers surrounding their homes,” detailed Glass. As the towers are occupied mainly by minorities, refugees, and immigrants, the sight of being swarmed by such an unnecessarily heavy police presence was “particularly traumatic” for some. 

At the time, the second wave of COVID-19 had just begun in Melbourne, and it was the discovery of about two dozen infections in the towers that led to state officials’ decision of placing the residents under immediate lockdown. While the lockdown was successful in containing the spread, it did not put into consideration the residents’ rights to humane treatment while confined to their homes. The report states that the Chief Health Officer, Annaliese van Diemen, was given “just 15 minutes to consider the human rights implications of the decision before the lockdown was scheduled to be announced,” according to the Herald Sun. Although she signed the directions, van Diemen did not feel that the lockdown should have been imposed so quickly, believing that a one-day delay would not have made “a hugely significant difference to containing the outbreak.”

Despite Australia’s success in slowing down the spread of COVID-19 around the country, its methods have disproportionally affected those in lower-income communities. While the report recommends that the Victorian government should apologize for the harm and distress caused by the lockdown — frankly, the least they could do — Housing Minister Richard Wynne has refused to do so. “We make no apologies for saving lives,” he later said in a statement as reported by Reuters. This, however, is not the apology that is being sought — the government is not being asked to apologize for taking swift action, or for helping prevent the spread of the virus; the issue lies within the lack of consideration for the health and well-being of a disproportionately disadvantaged group of people, whose rights were unmistakably violated. “We may be tempted, during a crisis, to view human rights as expendable in the pursuit of saving human lives,” warned Glass in her report. But the reality is that the two are not mutually exclusive and that this kind of thinking can be extremely dangerous. One only must ask oneself whether such a scenario ever would have occurred had a similar outbreak taken place in a high-end, luxurious apartment complex — and the answer is quite clear: it would not have.