How The City I Love Messed Up

Melbourne was oh so close to eliminating COVID-19

Melbourne, Victoria- Australia Photo: Courtesy of James Connell

After months of the “new normal”, lockdown, social distancing and every other COVID buzzword we were free. Finally, about to be free. Proud to have faced COVID-19 and won. But then……

I live in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria in Australia and am a proud Melburnian. I have spent time travelling the world, promoting the city to people from Indonesia to the UAE to the USA. Spreading the word how Melbourne — pronounced MelBIN not MelBORN — has been the world’s most livable city for seven of the last eight years.

Taking the spotlight away from our arch-rival, beautiful Sydney. So to write what I am about to write will hurt.

Melbourne — you have fucked up. Sorry — I need to keep this PG, which is hard to do when I’m angry. The people of the city of Melbourne, the politicians of the city. They have really messed up.

Let us go back to March. A time when people could hug. Seems so long ago, doesn’t it. The world was finally taking notice of the Coronavirus, and countries initiated different plans of action to combat the pandemic. Australia was one of the quickest countries to react, closing its borders to all countries on March 20 to prevent the spread of the virus. Being in the fortuitous position of being an island, this was quite easy to do.

Social distancing was introduced on March 21, and next came lockdowns. Although COVID numbers were minimal, especially compared to shocking numbers coming from China, Italy and Spain at the time, drastic measures were taken.

Australians were restricted to their homes and only allowed to leave for essential activity — of which panic buying toilet paper — was the main one.

By the end of the month, state of emergencies were declared in all states, schools moved to online learning, and the Federal government introduced a Job Keeper program to assist those whose employees were adversely affected.

It was a tough time, but by and large, people abided by the situation and our numbers — cases and deaths — remained low. As we looked on at what was happening in Europe and spreading through the USA, we were glad to be an island country. And dare I say, proud of the way our politicians were handling the situation.

By May, with numbers falling, many states began to wind back their restrictions. School was back, cafes and restaurants could open, and many people saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

June brought more optimism as almost all states were virus-free. On June 6, Victoria had 0 new cases — the first such day for three months. Professional sports returned — a boon for a sports-mad country — and bars opened. There was even talk of a travel bubble with New Zealand. Things were on the up.

And then for Melbourne, the city I love, the city I promote. It fell apart.

Melbourne, Victoria- Australia Photo: Courtesy of James Connell

Soon after its borders closed, Australia introduced mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals. They were accommodated in downtown hotels at the governments expense. Those in quarantine would be restricted to their rooms, with just thirty minutes a day allowed outside — only in a restricted area and only with the occupants of their hotel room.

It was harsh and restrictive but necessary — and it seemed to work. Spread of COVID through returned travellers was minimised, and the rest of the world looked at Australia in awe. We were held up as a beacon for the way we had acted.

This changed when in mid-June, numbers slowly increased. But only in the state of Victoria. At first, the blame was placed on the BLM protests that had occurred two weeks earlier. 10,000 people marching the streets for this worthy cause. The critics came out — these selfish BLM protestors spread COVID. And then the truth started coming out.

The Melbourne hotel quarantine fiasco.

While every other state, used state police and the Australian Defence Force to monitor hotel quarantine, the Victorian state government appointed three private security companies to manage it for the hotels in Melbourne. They in turn passed it onto subcontractors.

These companies offered no training to staff, rorted taxpayers by overstating the amount of workers on shift and had no regard for the job they were paid to do.

Security guards slept with quarantined guests, allowed them out to go shopping or get food, shared lighters with sick guests. They were not given adequate protection and wore the same masks and gloves for over eight hours. Basically, every possible rule that could be broken was.

In addition, it was reported that tests were not mandatory before leaving quarantine. Another exception to the rule in place in every other state. 30% of quarantined travellers refused tests, yet were allowed to leave, possibly while infectious.

This lax operation — under the state governments watch — allowed COVID to regain its foot in Melbourne. The hotel guards took the virus back to their families who then on spread it. The State government which had been applauded for its stringent rules was now being questioned. What had they allowed to happen?

My fellow Melburnians were up in arms. Would this mean lockdown again? Under rising pressure, the decision was made to lock down some parts of Melbourne. The suburbs where the guards had lived and their families worked and where COVID cases were rising. An area with 300,000 inhabitants.

Melbourne was now divided. In some cases, one side of a street was locked down while the other wasn’t. Desperate people crashed the VICROADS website to change their licence registration to other suburbs so they could be free.

The virus continued to spread. Other states continued their run of zero cases as Victorias rose to its peak figures.

The next step was to effectively imprison people. It was determined the public housing in some suburbs were a considerable risk of spreading the virus. These tall apartment towers — known here as Housing Commission flats — were home to thousands of people, living close together — sharing elevators and laundries. Many of them immigrants and low-income earners. Many with inadequate levels of English. To contain the spread, police were stationed on every floor of these towers.

Fear spread throughout these communities. Communication barriers make the message hard to deliver to some. Often, they would refuse to be tested, unsure of what the test was for.

The media have dubbed these towers “vertical cruise ships.” In the locked down suburbs, numbers continue to rise. While the rest of Australia, enjoys freedom and zero cases, Victoria is in the midst of a second wave.

The situation made global headlines, even in the USA, where numbers are out of control and dwarf what we have here. Friends over there messaged me to say it was a lead story in the New York Times. Coverage of Australia is generally limited to fires, cute animals and Chris Hemsworth so this was a big deal. Articles highlighted how Melbourne had undone all the good work of the previous three months. Australia had not done as well as first thought.

The final insult came today. All other states have closed their borders to Victoria. We are the pariah state — banned from moving within our own country.

There will be an investigation. The political game of “passing the buck” has begun. The finger-pointing and the blame game.

The “new new” normal is here now. Yes, that’s a double new. With us Melburnians, a separate class. The lepers of Australia. An island state within an island.

We look on enviously, like a grounded child, as the rest of our country are free to travel, to play sport, to go to bars and gyms and weddings. Even attend sporting stadiums. We are back to Netflix.

I am angry. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Mainly pissed off.

Melbourne — you really did fuck this up.

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