October 2020


The second wave

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
The second wave

Flemington, July 6, 2020. © Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

Case studies of systemic failure in Victoria’s fight against coronavirus

In short time, it seemed that Victoria – with the rest of Australia – had flattened the curve. The state, the country, had benefited from a mix of luck, leadership and relative preparedness. Our luck was to be an island nation with advanced warning, but it was leadership that closed our international borders much earlier than others.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison dissolved the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and established a national cabinet comprising himself, the premiers and the chief ministers. It mostly gave the public the impression of solemnly effective collaboration, even if the PM’s office continued its tactic from our Black Summer of publicly professing cooperation while privately undermining state counterparts to preferred journalists.

There was also the awkwardness of a prime minister trying to impose his authority upon a crisis in which the states occupied the driver’s seat. But the friction and duplicity could be forgiven when the curve’s spine broke: Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews enjoyed greater popularity, and each leader found notes of optimism – tempered by caution – in their speeches.

So it might have seemed, for a bright period in April and May, that Victorians had escaped the worst and our politics had rediscovered its seriousness. It might even have seemed that the strength of our society and its governance was triumphant, that our citizens and systems possessed something that few others in the world did.

Government leaders knew better. While sounding notes of optimism, they had all been advised by their chief medical officers that the virus was wildly exploitative. Like water, it would quickly find the slightest cracks and breach them.

And it did. But some cracks weren’t slight. And many were decades in the making.

On October 16, 2006, a commercial passenger jet arrived at Brisbane Airport from South Asia. In the months before, the World Health Organization had detected human cases of H5N1 virus, or bird flu. Significantly, it was believed the virus had achieved efficient human-to-human transmission. That was quickly proven right. Transmission accelerated, and by October a global pandemic was declared.

The plane landed with an unknown number of infected passengers. Some were gravely ill. Medics in personal protective equipment (PPE) descended, and after their tarmac triage, some passengers were taken to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, while the state’s biosecurity laboratory began analysing swabs. For the first time, the airport used thermal screeners on other passengers. In Canberra, cabinet was alerted and the federal health department’s secured National Incident Room was mobilised.

This entire sequence of events was “Exercise Cumpston 06” – a simulation. At the time, the largest health simulation ever held in Australia. After the initial “day zero” exercise, the simulation jumped three months, to a time of “significantly higher levels of infection and mortality, with the virus spreading in all states and territories” and when “stocks of antiviral and PPE were depleted and health and emergency services were experiencing difficulty in coping with the increased demands”. Conceptually, the exercise encompassed months. In reality, it lasted four days, and H5N1 never achieved efficient human-to-human transmission.

The exercise had been carried out under the then health minister, Tony Abbott. The year before, he had written an op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald:

We don’t know if or when a pandemic might occur. We don’t know how severe it might be. We do know that a Spanish flu-type pandemic would be a public health challenge to exceed the worst environmental disaster and to dwarf almost any conceivable terrorist atrocity …

Once pandemic flu is widely present in Australia, depending on its severity, the Government will have to decide (as it did in 1919) whether to discourage or ban large gatherings and close schools. Any such measures will have serious economic consequences but can slow the spread of disease in the absence of an effective vaccine.

Held under the auspices of COAG, Cumpston 06 involved the federal government and every state and territory. The subsequent report made 12 recommendations, the final of which was that these exercises regularly continue.

They didn’t. There was only one more: Exercise Sustain 08. Adam Kamradt-Scott helped run it. Today, he’s an associate professor at the University of Sydney, specialising in global health security. “After that first exercise, COAG met and reviewed the findings and then commissioned a second exercise that would look at non-health sector impacts, as well as how to potentially aid recovery,” he says. “It went for eight months. There were three priority industries: tourism, food production and communications. The national framework for our response was COAG, which is effectively the national cabinet now, but a key difference is that COAG also involved local government. The reality was that we were one of the first countries to look at recovery. In the preparation for that exercise, we contacted the WHO to look at what they’d done and they said they hadn’t done the work.”

Kevin Rudd was the last prime minister to have overseen a national pandemic exercise. I asked him what strengths and weaknesses it revealed. “From [Exercise Sustain 08], we developed an early form of national cabinet, the kind that Morrison is now using,” he wrote by email from New York. “Our vision was that, should a full-blown pandemic hit, we would act in a coordinated way across the states and territories. The exercise also drew attention to our National [Medical] Stockpile, leading to greater strategic stockpiling that, unfortunately, fell by the wayside under the conservatives.

“Honestly, I was stunned to learn this year that there were no further preparations made after the conservatives took power in 2013. The technological developments in public communications alone since 2008 necessitated fresh exercises … This isn’t rocket science, by the way. The 2020 Summit Report anticipated global pandemics, and so did the Defence White Paper of 2009.”

Rudd’s point about technological changes was echoed by Kamradt-Scott: in 2008, the iPhone had only just launched. The National Broadband Network was only in conception. WhatsApp didn’t exist. Such technologies would dramatically affect tracing apps, remote work and public communications.

An open question, though, is how effective subsequent exercises would have been if they continued to be based upon the assumption that the worst-case scenario was an influenza pandemic – a revival of the Spanish flu. While there is a matrix of federal and state pandemic plans, the major federal one is based upon such an outbreak. COVID-19 is not influenza. The difference is significant, because the plan is based upon a relatively known enemy – one for which we have existing treatments, containment plans and the ability to quickly develop a vaccine. Rudd argues that subsequent exercises might have anticipated this.

It is interesting to read what the “Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza”, updated in 2019, has to say on major, contentious policies that have since defined Victoria’s – and Australia’s – experience. On quarantine? “Not recommended,” and “use of hotels is problematic”. On domestic travel restrictions and border closures? “Not recommended.”

Mandatory quarantine and border closures – in the context of an influenza outbreak – were considered overly complex, costly and disruptive. While there is a separate, national communicable disease plan, released in 2016, by its own description it merely “provides a generic national framework for a primary response to outbreaks for which there is no pre-existing disease-specific plan”.

“There’s been a false assumption amongst the public health community for decades now,” Kamradt-Scott says, “that the worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic … and it’s informed pandemic preparedness all across the world. This lack of imagination isn’t unique to us.”

In prescient criticism, a 2013 House of Representatives standing committee raised concerns that the assumptions of the Cumpston and Sustain exercises were too narrow, and that planning for an infectious disease emergency appeared to be solely focused on influenza. The committee pointed out that there was only passing reference to another “major infectious outbreak”: “This gives the impression that there has been little consideration in planning for a pandemic in Australia, if the pandemic is not influenza.”

The committee’s report was tabled five years before the World Health Organization published its revised R&D Blueprint of priority diseases – a list of just eight, for which there was an “urgent need for accelerated research and development”.

Of the list – which included Ebola, Lassa fever and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) – one stood out, for the simple fact that it didn’t exist. It was called “Disease X”, a placeholder name for a hypothetical, novel pathogen – and candidate for a destructive pandemic. “As experience has taught us, more often than not the thing that is gonna hit us is something that we did not anticipate,” Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the time.

Fauci’s old colleague, Peter Doherty, tells me: “This? It’s pretty much Disease X.”

Professor Peter Doherty was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1996, for his research on how the immune system detects virus-infected cells. But at the start of 2020, in his 80th year, he was thinking about retirement. A prolific author of popular science books, he tells me he was working on something different: “the definitive book on war, empire and tennis – the definitive work because no one has written such a thing before,” he jokes.

But the world had other ideas. Soon, Doherty was contemplating the new, emerging virus. “Early on, I was thinking about it like influenza,” he says. “But it’s a very different disease. The greatest pandemic threat was always influenza – with the caveat that something new would come out of nature. Now we’ve learnt a lesson.

“The virus has surprised me. I’ve never seen a respiratory virus that operates like this. This infection is a respiratory infection that’s also a vascular disease. We’ve never seen that before. It’s going to leave a lot of people who aren’t necessarily that sick with long-term health consequences. When you just look at death rates, you get the wrong impression.”

In late January, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, in Melbourne, became the first laboratory outside China to grow the virus from a sample. The cell-grown virus was then shared with medics globally, helping to improve the accuracy of diagnosis and the development of antibody tests. Doherty was pulled from semi-retirement.

When I ask Doherty about our preparedness, he takes a bigger picture. “The point I’d make is this: don’t cut back public health systems. A lot of the problems in Victoria reflect successive cuts to public health systems. It’s part of this neoliberal disease we suffer from, when you cut spending all the time and think you’re doing a good job, and transfer them to independent private contractors [that] make money out of it and deliver shit … I think what this has shown is that a lot of the way we run our social system is toxic.

“To use a plumbing analogy, this virus is the ultimate leak test. It’s shown us where all the flaws are. The flaws in people not knowing their different responsibilities. We’ve seen this with the Ruby Princess, and under the inquiry into hotel quarantine, and with aged care. We should take from this a lot of lessons and restructure some things, but you know how hard it is to change things in Australia.”

Political leaders have often referred to this pandemic as a “once-in-a-century” event, rhetoric that’s neatly, and coincidentally, reinforced by the near exact centenary of the Spanish flu. Doherty suggests this is facile, because it assumes that conditions have remained the same in the ensuing 100 years. Instead of expecting our planet to be besieged by pandemics at regular but distant intervals, we should expect more pandemics for the simple reason that we have created a world more likely to create and communicate them. Pandemic preparedness should mean mitigating against the causes, as well as refining our responsiveness.

“The dynamic that’s changed is that we’ve got enormous numbers of people on the planet, a billion of them don’t get enough to eat each day and they’ll eat wild animals,” Doherty says. “Forests are being cleared rapidly, habitats being destroyed and people in much closer contact with these species. But the one factor that makes an enormous difference is mass international air travel. People talk about this as a hundred-year event. That’s about as true as severe bushfires being a 50-year event. It’s all crap, because the situation’s changed. We’ve had a series of warnings. SARS, MERS, the bird flu scare. Now we have this one. Everyone thinks this is a rare event. I think it’s just a trial run.”

In October 2018, as Daniel Andrews was campaigning for a second term as Victoria’s premier, he made a promise: if elected, his government would establish an inquiry into the private security industry. The inquiry’s issue paper made it clear why: “Stakeholders continue to observe issues with ‘sham contracting’ as a means of reducing an employee’s overtime, penalty rates and leave entitlements, and probity requirements, specifically related to organised crime infiltration, or unsuitable persons being involved in the Industry … Issues of misconduct have also damaged the reputation of the Industry, raising questions on the adequacy of Industry training and competency.”

Andrews won the election, and almost six months later – in June 2019 – Victoria’s police minister announced the investigation had begun. Incredibly, the very industry that was under state review was the same industry used by the government to principally enforce its hotel quarantine policy. What’s more, because of the urgency, it was not subject to the usual tender processes.

On Friday, March 27, national cabinet decided that returning travellers would be obliged to spend their 14-day isolation in facilities run by the states and territories. The federal government said the Australian Defence Force and Border Force would be available to assist.

The federal government had set a deadline: March 29. This meant that Victorian public servants, from multiple departments and agencies, had less than 48 hours to design the policy. From scratch, basically. They called it Operation Soteria, named for the Greek goddess of protection.

The urgency, and the confusion of multiple stakeholders, didn’t bode well. “The initial set-up of the Hotel Quarantine Program was undertaken in 48 hours and represented a very considerable logistical effort,” senior counsel assisting Victoria’s COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry said in August. “Decisions were made quickly and in the absence, it seems, of precise lines of responsibility, control, supervision and management.”

Neither Victoria Police nor the ADF were used to help secure the hotels. Instead, the police role was largely peripheral: helping cordon new arrivals from media, family and the rubber-necking public, as well as closing off local streets.

This contrasted with operations at New South Wales hotels, which used a mix of private security, police and military inside them. This would have been the preference of a senior public servant at Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, who, in an email to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on March 29, asked that police be provided around the clock.

Asked to reflect upon this, the officer responsible for overseeing Victoria Police’s involvement with Operation Soteria, Commander Tim Tully, told the inquiry that he knew of no such request and that, anyway: “My view at the time was certainly that it was not required, it would have been an inefficient use of [police] resources.”

It wasn’t just Tully’s view. He said that it was the recommendation of the then chief commissioner, Graham Ashton, that private security guards form the front line of securing the hotels.

Regardless, the program seemed to work. Victoria was bending the curve, like everywhere else. On March 29, the day the hotel program started, 84 new cases were reported in Victoria. A week later, it was 20. Between April 19 and June 16, the daily case numbers described a humble plateau, with only occasional daily increases in double-digits.

But the hotels had already silently, and catastrophically, leaked the virus. A family of four arrived in Australia on May 9, and all of them would test positive six days later. They were staying at the Rydges on Swanston hotel, where three staff members first tested positive on May 25. That’s almost all that was needed for another outbreak, one vastly greater and more destructive than the first. Subsequent analysis by DHHS epidemiologist Dr Charles Alpren concluded that the vast majority of Victoria’s outbreak could be traced to the family, and 99 per cent of all cases to just two Melbourne hotels.

The virus was seeded. Community transmission grew. Modestly at first, then immodestly. It was said that the virus didn’t discriminate, but it did: the poorest suburbs had the highest numbers.

On August 5, Victoria’s daily number hit 700 – almost all in Melbourne. By this point, Melbourne and the nearby Mitchell Shire had already been under stage 3 lockdown since early July. But now, in the first week of August, the premier declared a state of disaster and imposed a stage 4 lockdown – and some of the severest restrictions in the world.

On June 30, the premier had announced that an inquiry, led by former justice Jennifer Coate, would be held into the hotel program. After delays, it began hearings on July 20, at which point its usefulness as a shield for Andrews mostly evaporated.

Until then, the premier had invoked the pending inquiry as reason not to speak on the matter at his daily media conferences. But on its first day, Justice Coate said the inquiry had no gagging powers, and was no reason for the premier not to answer questions. “The lines of authority and accountability and exactly what has gone on here, it is not clear,” the premier later said, in a long and combative press conference.

It was a little clearer to Dr Stephen Duckett, former secretary of the federal health department and now the health program director at the Grattan Institute. “Victorian public health has suffered budget cuts over decades by both Labor and Liberal governments, and this has undercut its capacity to respond,” he says. “I think both governments took the view that … if you stripped resources from the back of the office no one would notice and no one would care, so long as you kept hospital funding, which was the only thing people cared about because of waiting times. And that worked, until coronavirus came along.”

The hotel inquiry – which will now report in November – has often been a blizzard of contradictory statements and alarming testimony. Nurses and guests described inappropriate behaviour from security guards; security guards said they were badly instructed. Guests described filthy rooms, while government staff said they quit, believing they were put at risk by inadequate PPE.

A theme of mass confusion about protocols and lines of authority emerged. Meanwhile, WorkSafe announced it was investigating the subcontracted security firms.

A former police officer reported that he had seen quarantine guests allowed to wander the city. A nurse testified that many security guards were precariously employed, lived in large families and were suspicious of government – making the spread of the virus easy, and contact tracing hard.

Around 4pm on Saturday, July 4, the Victorian premier made an extraordinary announcement: nine of the inner city’s public housing towers would be completely locked down – effectively confining 3000 residents to their small units for a fortnight.

“The first priority here is to find every case in those towers so that we don’t have an explosion of infections in a highly vulnerable community,” Victoria’s deputy chief health officer, Annaliese van Diemen, said.

The next day, her federal counterpart would describe the towers as “vertical cruise ships”.

Among the 3000 residents, almost 30 cases had then been detected – but given overcrowding and the shared use of facilities, the government feared that most residents were exposed.

The lockdown was already happening. From about an hour before its announcement, hundreds of police swarmed the estates. There was no consultation with residents, and no warning. Seeing the enormous numbers of police, one resident told me he thought there’d been a murder or an act of terrorism. It had also surprised the police: their union leader, Sergeant Wayne Gatt, learnt of the lockdown through the media that evening.

Like the hotel program, the lockdown of the towers was an urgent and improvised policy. When I asked a DHHS staff member about its formulation, and the appropriateness of police leading the lockdown, they said: “The [tower case] numbers came in on Friday, and action has to be taken on Saturday, and there aren’t many large workforces to hand to the government at short notice on a weekend, and I think that’s why the police were called. It wasn’t appropriate in that if you had the chance, it wouldn’t be your first choice. But it was no one’s first choice from what I understand.”

On July 9, after extensive testing, the “hard lockdown” on eight of the nine towers was relaxed, and their residents moved to stage 3 lockdown – which had since been applied city wide. But with 53 detected cases, one tower – 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne – would remain under stage 4 for the full fortnight. By August 4, 10 per cent of the residents across the affected towers had tested positive.

It was night four of his tower’s lockdown, and “Amani” was giving me a tour of his flat. Virtually, of course. He had the place to himself. He was symptomatic, and so his partner and young daughter were staying with family at another flat in the building. Amani lives in the 12 Holland Court tower, in Flemington.

Amani was exhausted, anxious. As he sat and morosely puffed from his hookah pipe, he reflected upon the unreality of the situation. On Saturday afternoon, the tower’s public address system came alive. It broadcast a pre-recorded female voice, in English – and only in English. Amani played me the audio. “It sounded like The Purge movies,” Amani said, referencing the ultra-violent series of horror films in which New York’s Staten Island, for 12 hours every year, makes all crime legal.

Amani’s tower was not so much under lockdown as sudden and heavily enforced detention. In fact, that’s what the official orders were. He showed me the government’s notice: “Detention Directions”. Part 2 (4) read: “You will be detained at the premises where you ordinarily reside …”

Those premises, like the other flats in these towers, are modest. No balcony, no laundry, no central heating or cooling. They’re small. “The first two days were hectic,” Amani said. “Once in a while you yell for no reason. Then you have to apologise. It’s getting worse – you wake up depressed.

“It’s hard to pass the time. You take naps. It’s literally a prison routine. One of the cops joked about treating prisoners better … When you put a dog on a leash and tie it to something for a long time, they growl, but then they just shiver in the corner. People here feel cornered.”

Amani emigrated to Australia as a boy from Sudan. He studied high school in Melbourne, then earned a diploma in nursing. He’s worked as a nurse and personal carer, but is currently unemployed. He reflected bitterly on Pauline Hanson’s comments, made the day before on the Today show, when she described the towers’ residents as drug addicts who can’t speak English. “That was a cold one,” he said. Hanson was sacked by Channel Nine later that day, but not before it had promoted her comments on social media.

Suddenly, I heard muffled yelling. “You hear that?” Amani asked.

“Yeah. What’s going on?”

Amani took his phone to the window, opened it, and filmed the scene for me. At the bottom of the tower, 20 or 25 officers were surrounding a man carrying a bag.

“How is this fair?” Amani said. There was screaming now.

“They’re refusing to let him bring the bag here,” Amani explained, sighing. “Now they stop direct delivery from family and friends. Seems like every time new cops come on a shift they have different rules. The afternoon cops allowed things to be brought to the main entrance, then we pick it up. Then last night they said we can’t go downstairs but they will bring it to the door. Now they say things have to be dropped off at a community centre next to other buildings to be checked and it could take hours.”

“It’s like we’re a joke,” Amani said. “Like we’re lab rats.”

Not long afterwards, there was a knock on his door. It was 10.30pm. It was a food delivery, dropped off by police and volunteers. Amani opened the door and called out for them – he was still unsure what the food delivery system was. But so were they. He came back inside and showed me the package: it included tea, cereal, pasta sauce and tinned kidney beans.

“You’re a vegetarian now,” I said.

“Man, that will never happen.”

Amani was floridly symptomatic. He coughed, sniffled, his eyes were red. I asked him if he’d been tested yet, and he told me that he refused. He was adamant that he didn’t have coronavirus. “But how can you be sure?”

“I just know. I don’t have it.”

At various points in our conversation, I gently inquired about his resistance to being tested. This was a man, after all, who believed that the virus existed, and had told me that friends of his had been hospitalised for it. He never answered directly, but there was a recurring theme of distrust in the government. This would be echoed by other residents – ones who’d left despotic states.

The towers’ precast structures were built in an ex-military tank factory in the 1960s, but the towers themselves were conceived as flowers that would flourish from swamps. The term was “slum reclamation”, and two men in the 1930s were critical to its becoming policy: social reformer and founder of the Methodist Babies Home, Frederick Oswald Barnett, and Father Gerard Tucker, founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

“Oswald Barnett was a religious figure, and quite concerned with moral fibre,” says Liam Davies, an urban planner at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research. “He was a paternalistic proponent of physical determinism – that bad areas create bad people. The [Victorian] Housing Commission starts in the late 1930s with two key goals: mediating slums, and building working-class housing. It was very much focused on a public good, but it was very paternalistic. But slum reclamation doesn’t really start until the 1950s, when the federal government got involved. They did what was known as a ‘windscreen survey’ where they drive down the street and they assess the housing based only on the outside. Then they forcefully acquired the land, knocked it down and built the high-rise towers.”

In total, 44 high-rise towers were built between 1962 and 1976, using cheap and efficient prefabricated concrete slabs. The housing model was inspired by the influential but divisive Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, whose quasi-utopian vision for urban design was known as the “towers in the park”. The theory was that stacking homes would consolidate land that could be transformed into large, communal gardens.

Perhaps the most infamous expression of the design was the Pruitt–Igoe estate in St. Louis, Missouri – finished in 1956, but demolished less than 20 years later. It began as a racially segregated housing project, quickly became decrepit and was almost exclusively occupied by poor, black Americans.

The design was condemned as a failure of modernity, but there’s a consensus among urban developers and designers that the real lesson of Pruitt–Igoe was this: architecture alone cannot – will not – correct generational injuries of racism and poverty, nor could it protect its residents from the prevailing policies of segregation and de-industrialisation that were beginning to empty the city. What’s more, the quality of its design meant nothing if the buildings weren’t maintained. And they weren’t. Lifts failed, pipes froze, sewage leaked.

Its residents successfully pathologised, and the architecture demonised, Pruitt–Igoe was spectacularly razed in controlled demolitions that were broadcast live in 1972. (Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, would have the unusual distinction of having had two of his grand designs destroyed on live television – Pruitt–Igoe and, almost 30 years later, the World Trade Center.)

Melbourne’s towers – like Victorian public housing generally – have also been neglected. The state hasn’t increased net expenditure on social housing (the umbrella term for both public and community housing) for six years, and no other state has transferred more public housing stock to private developers. Victoria now has less public housing than it did a decade ago – and a waiting list of some 43,000 families. None of this is secret: various reports from the Productivity Commission speak to neglect, while a 2018 Victorian parliamentary inquiry was critical of the government’s housing policy.

In the first week of the towers’ COVID-19 lockdown, an influential morning radio host, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, revived the old complaint by calling them “multi-storey monstrosities”.

“This is our Pruitt–Igoe moment in Australia,” says David Kelly, a research fellow at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research. “And the point here is that the [government] isn’t in the business of housing, and it hasn’t been since the ’70s or ’80s. It’s in the business of divesting itself from housing. And they lose nothing by getting the policy wrong – there’s no votes in it.”

Soon after the premier announced the lockdown of the towers, Dr Chris Lemoh started receiving phone calls. Lemoh is an infectious diseases physician at Monash Health, Victoria’s largest public health service. Some calls were from tower residents. Another call was from Victoria’s DHHS. They both wanted his help.

Lemoh says: “I had done some research a few years ago about HIV in African communities in Victoria, which involved me interviewing a bunch of people, a lot of them from the Horn of Africa, and a lot of the people lived in western Melbourne, Flemington, North Melbourne.

“I still had some pretty good links to people from those times, so when the tower lockdown happened I got some calls from people asking if I could help. I also got a call from the [DHHS] because they were concerned about community engagement.”

Lemoh was quickly seconded to the DHHS, where he stayed for a month. On the Monday after the premier’s announcement, he visited the towers, speaking with residents, police, emergency workers and volunteers. Because of how quickly the policy was conceived and executed – and because there was no warning – some residents were locked out of their homes, while some visitors were locked in. It was also obvious that the safe, quick and appropriate provision of supplies was a concern: among other things, residents needed medicine, food, nappies.

“These aren’t objects or animals,” Lemoh says. “They’re people with minds and the ability to make decisions, and it’s actually a lot harder to force people to do things than it is to ask them. And it’s very dangerous to assume what people will do without talking to them, because it means that all your biases and preconceptions come into play, and you’re imagining the thoughts of somebody that you haven’t spoken to. Who have their own view of the world, their own experience, knowledge and priorities. And for you to imagine that you can understand that without talking to them is very presumptuous, to say the least.”

For the first few days, there was confusion about who was in charge, and just what, exactly, the protocol for supplies was. And like others I spoke with, Lemoh would rue the various failures of communication to the tower residents. “It was pretty clear that this whole pandemic depends upon good communication and preferably trust between the government and the people, because all of the action that’s required to prevent infection needs people to do them at the request or direction of the government,” Lemoh says. “And there’s been some troubled relationships with government, and partly with police, before this.”

One volunteer, who did not want to be named, told me of their initial involvement at the towers. “Saturday night, there was a post [on a private forum] from a woman who said she had two nappies left,” the volunteer said. “She went downstairs and asked if someone could get some. They didn’t have that capacity, and I thought: Well, how are they going to provide prescription medicine, for instance? … Some people don’t speak English and live by themselves. If staff can’t provide it, and then friends can’t provide it – because they’re being turned back – then, that’s a problem.”

Volunteers and residents told me of mouldy food supplies, and pork given to Muslim families. There were notices to residents written in impenetrable legalese. In the first few, problematic days, DHHS staff leant heavily on volunteers to provide communication, translation, and the provision of food and medicine – the community had mobilised, and “left the government in the dust”, Lemoh said.

A potential flashpoint came on July 11, when temporary fencing was installed to create an exercise space, approximately 10 square metres in size. To residents, it resembled a prison yard. There were passionate objections, and at 1am the next morning the fencing was removed.

“We were told that [the fencing] wouldn’t be used, that this wasn’t a prison,” one volunteer says. “But then the cages go up. There was a lot of gaslighting, upon reflection. I think it was about making us feel unstable, and getting excited by small victories – but people getting their insulin isn’t a victory. That should be standard while they’re effectively in state care. It was a really weird relationship we had with DHHS. At one point, we were told by an individual [DHHS] staff member that they ‘need us’. Which wasn’t the right thing to say, because it’s not a compliment – it’s scary.” (This unofficial admission of incapacity would echo the department’s forced outsourcing of contact tracing.)

Victoria’s Public Health and Well-being Act 2008, which was invoked for the lockdown of the towers, requires those administering its powers to ensure that its decisions are “transparent, systematic and appropriate”, and that the affected public be given “access to reliable information in appropriate forms to facilitate good understanding of public health issues”.

Whether this happened will be a question for Victoria’s ombudsman, Deborah Glass, who on July 17 was tasked with investigating the lockdown – though the terms of reference only include one tower, 33 Alfred Street in North Melbourne. Glass has received more than 150 complaints and submissions. There is no date on a report.

Chris Lemoh speaks calmly, but was obviously angered by the execution of the lockdown. He says there was “a lot of confusion about who was in charge” and that the DHHS, while comprised of “good, well-meaning people”, was detached from the community it was there to ostensibly help. This reflects what residents and volunteers told me.

“That’s a big problem we have,” Lemoh says, “the fact you put out information in very bureaucratic language, and expect that will be comprehensible to everyone outside your bubble.

“To give you a message in [language] that I understand, but you don’t, is the same as me not giving you the message at all. It’s like an arrogant ignorance: I assume that I know so much that I don’t even need to ask you. But under pressure, it goes from arrogant ignorance to belligerent ignorance … That’s at an individual level. But as a society, we have to get over it too.”

Some numbers: At time of writing, there have been 729 COVID-19 deaths in Victoria. Of those, 574 were residents of aged care.

Some more numbers: Since 1997, there have been 18 reports or inquiries into aged care in Australia. Most are damning. Reviewing the reviews, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety wrote last year:

It is often difficult to determine the Australian Government response to previous reviews and inquiries. Responses often come years after the review and recount what has been done in an almost tangential way to the actual recommendations. Even when responses are provided, they can be opaque, rendering it near impossible to even determine whether the Government intends to implement the recommendation in the form proposed by the reviewer …

While governments have responded with ad hoc reforms to elements of the system, they have not been able to resolve the underlying problems with a system that has failed to provide the Australian community with the assurance of quality and safety in aged care that it expects.

Those “underlying problems” were unsparingly detailed by the royal commission’s interim report last year: “[Aged-care homes] are fragmented, unsupported, and underfunded … All too often, they are unsafe and seemingly uncaring.”

This resulted in malnutrition, fatally untreated wounds, the undignified rationing of continence pads, and the cynically flagrant use of physical restraints and sedatives.

In Senate committee hearings into pandemic responses, there was much vague talk about the “checking” and “revising” of systems. But the fact that aged-care residents are frequently starved, stupefied, and were inadequately defended against a lethal virus, is not the result of an innocently frayed system in need of “checking”. It’s the result of sustained political neglect.

The Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza states that the “Australian Government will also be responsible for residential aged care facilities … and establishing and maintaining infection control guidelines, healthcare safety and quality standards.”

But on August 19, the prime minister told ABC News Breakfast: “We regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic, then public health, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are for Victoria.”

Just days later, on August 21, the federal minister for aged care was asked, in a Senate committee hearing, how many residents had died from COVID-19. Richard Colbeck couldn’t say. He put his glasses on, and thumbed earnestly through his papers. Half a minute passed.

He still couldn’t say. The answer, at the time, was 254. That number would soon double.

When there are matters that few genuinely care about, but they are intrinsically worthy and so impossible to explicitly reject, sincere commitment is replaced with inquiries – and then perplexingly abstruse responses to those inquiries. In this way, a complex body of stuff can be pointed to as evidence of a government’s good intentions. Regarding aged care, we have forests of stuff.

If this mattered to us, then substantial reform would have happened by now. But it doesn’t. We haven’t mandated it. “The virus is a strict teacher,” Chris Lemoh says, “and we won’t get out of class until we get it right.”

It’s Father’s Day, and Victoria’s waiting for the premier’s midday press conference. Really waiting. Today, Daniel Andrews will share his “roadmap to COVID normal”. Melbourne has been under lockdown, in one form or another, since March. Stage 4 restrictions have existed for almost five weeks.

And a lot’s happened here: A baby required the premier’s personal intervention to be at his father’s funeral; friends of mine mourned their child inside a bubble. Emergency departments recorded a 33 per cent increase in teens presenting with self-harm; clinical psychologists had their longest ever waitlists. When therapists and clients met, they wore masks, which muffled speech and flattened rapport. Their face obscured, the therapist’s eyes were obliged to become – or to try to become – conspicuously communicative.

The Army patrolled the streets; police installed surveillance units in parks. In early September, hundreds of unmasked lockdown protesters marched upon the Shrine of Remembrance. Lifeline and BeyondBlue received record calls, but, happily, the state coroner said that, so far, there had not been an increase in suicide. With few exceptions, it was illegal to leave your house after 8pm, and for a few days in August, the bitter passage of an “Antarctic Blob” of weather threatened Victorians’ allotted hour of daily exercise.

Meanwhile, Queensland’s closed-border rejection of Victorians did not apply to construction magnate Mark Simonds, who was also exempted from quarantine, after arriving on the Gold Coast in his superyacht, Lady Pamela. At least, that was until a Nine investigation revealed that Lady Pamela had made numerous stops on its way there. In early August, when Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown was imposed, his company declared: “At Simonds we stand together with the rest of Victoria and remain committed to stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

Economists warned that large numbers of small businesses wouldn’t survive – businesses that sustain personal livelihoods but also help comprise local culture and community. One awful strangeness of the lockdown is that most local communities won’t know the sum of their loss until the long hibernation is over. Once the storm has passed, we might leave our homes to survey the damage.

On Father’s Day, in our blackened Year of the Lord 2020, the expectations of Melburnians were classically managed by pre-emptive leaks that suggested that stage 4 would continue, “perhaps well into October”.

So it’s not surprising to learn that the leaks aren’t far off but were slightly harsher than the reality: the premier announces only a fortnight’s extension to the existing six weeks of stage 4, but that lockdown, in less severe fashion, will extend to the end of October. By then, Melbourne will have experienced seven months of lockdown. “Some decisions I make are 50/50, where you’re genuinely unsure of which one,” he says. “This isn’t one of those.”

A “supercomputer” is mentioned – repeatedly, and conspicuously – as the presumably consummate machine generating the modelling that obliged the lockdown’s extension. “You can’t argue with science,” the premier says.

But let’s say that you did want to argue with it. Well, it was initially impossible, because while “modelling” was repeatedly invoked as justification, none of it was presented to the public. Later, it’s revealed that the data invested in the supercomputer was outdated – and that one of its modellers disagreed with the premier’s “roadmap”.

The premier says that he understands the lockdown is “frustrating”. What’s really frustrating is to hear the lockdowns, and their seemingly endless renewals, described as “frustrating”. They are not frustrating. They are distressing, disorientating, enervating. They are torturous and destructive.

Which is not to oppose them.

The prime minister is displeased, wagging his finger, and criticising Victoria’s contact tracing. “We’re all Melburnians,” he said in early July, but by September, after a national cabinet meeting marked by Western Australia’s obstinacy on its tight border, he’s wondering aloud about the health of the Federation.

We might all wonder about that. And so much more.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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