Victorians were suddenly pariahs’: how the state’s coronavirus outbreak divided Australia

While most Australians are enjoying increased freedoms, 300,000 Victorians in Covid-19 hotspots are back in lockdown


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Victorians were suddenly pariahs': how the state's coronavirus outbreak divided Australia 1

Just over a fortnight ago, Victorians were planning trips away as the school holidays approached, and looking forward to again being able to gather in pubs and restaurants with their friends – albeit with social distancing measures and hygiene protocols in place.

Now, the state is divided. While most people are enjoying these increased freedoms, 300,000 residents across 10 postcodes – encompassing 36 suburbs – are back in lockdown, only allowed to leave their homes for exercise, healthcare, work and study if those activities can’t be done from home, and childcare.

When the prime minister, Scott Morrison, first announced border closures, social distancing and gathering restrictions across Australia in March, there was a sense everyone was in this together. Stories of community kindness emerged as neighbours checked on one another and brought supplies to the most vulnerable. Children drew positive messages in colourful chalk on footpaths and driveways. Times were tough, but everyone was playing their part to flatten the curve. Premiers and chief ministers worked with Morrison as part of a mostly unified national cabinet to implement consistent public health advice.

With the latest targeted lockdowns announced by the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, on Tuesday, which came into effect from Thursday, the messages of solidarity appeared to have diminished. Police would patrol suburb boundaries, carrying out checks on people travelling into and out of hotspots, Andrews said. He was stern.

“If we do not do this now then I won’t be locking down 10 postcodes, I will be locking down all postcodes,” he said. “Victoria police will not be mucking about. They will be there policing these rules.”

Many in the affected suburbs expressed frustration, while those in surrounding suburbs urged their neighbours to stay away. Businesses asked customers in hotspots not to come. Those living in hotspots felt they had been adhering to social distancing measures, but were now being affected by a failure of infection control protocols by a security company, and by the careless actions of a few individuals who attended family gatherings despite being unwell and awaiting Covid-19 test results.

Quarantine failures

Andrews told reporters on Tuesday that a number of Victoria’s cases through late May and early June had been linked through genomic testing to an infection control breach in the hotel quarantine program, prompting him to call for a judicial inquiry. Security staff at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Melbourne had breached infection control measures and had worked while infectious. They then spread the virus into suburbs.

“Clearly there has been a failure in the operation of this program,” Andrews said. “I have today ordered the establishment of an inquiry, led by a former judge, into the operation of the hotel quarantine program. A significant number, and potentially more, of the outbreaks in the north of the city are attributable via genomic sequencing to staff members in hotel quarantine breaching well-known and well understood infection control protocols. That is unacceptable to me.”

The warnings of police patrols and postcode checks seemed jarring, when it was a lack of procedure in a hotel that sparked a significant cluster. Pressure has been placed on the state government to answer why hotel quarantine was being managed by security contractors rather than by police and defence force personnel, as is the case in New South Wales. Mary-Lousie McLaws, a professor of public health and adviser to the World Health Organisation, told the ABC on Thursday that quarantine hotels should be seen by governments as at high risk of outbreaks, and staff well-trained in hygiene and infection control were paramount.

[When travellers are] returning from the northern hemisphere, where often the outbreak is out of control, they pose an enormous risk to the rest of society,” she said. “So those that are in charge have to comply 100% of the time. That can be difficult when they have been skilled in security or skilled in hospitality, but not necessarily skilled in infection prevention and control. We really need to task that to the experts. If we’re going to task it to those that don’t have that expertise, there needs to be a champion on site every day to ensure that people who aren’t professionals in infection control can keep themselves safe and keep their compliance to 100%.”

Meanwhile, other states and territories took aim at those facing lockdown with language that implied wrongdoing. The NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, on Wednesday warned: “Victorians right now from those hotspots are not welcome in NSW. If you come to NSW you will be exposed to the possibility of six months’ jail and $11,000 fines.” NSW residents were also told not to visit the affected postcodes.

The Northern Territory chief minister, Michael Gunner, announced travellers from hotspots must stay out. The Northern Territory will push ahead with plans to lift border restrictions from 17 July but quarantine measures will remain in place for anyone travelling from designated coronavirus hotspots. People travelling to the territory will also need to sign a declaration that they have not been through a hotspot in the previous 28 days. Anyone found to have lied on a statutory declaration could face a jail term of up to three years.

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, reiterated on Wednesday that the states borders were reopening from 10 July, except to Victorians. Travellers from elsewhere will be allowed into Queensland from 10 July so long as they sign a border declaration.

“This border declaration is to ensure that no one has travelled to Victoria in the past 14 days,” Palaszczuk said. “If you falsify a document, you will face strict penalties and fines up to $4,000. Our message to Queenslanders is please do not go there. Our message to Victorians is please do not come here.”

‘Us against them’

Former national mental health commissioner Professor Ian Hickie of the University of Sydney, criticised the government’s “top-down” approach to lockdowns, suggesting it eroded the sense of community among Australians.

“If you are trying to treat this as a law and order issue, there becomes a conflict,” he said. “It’s us against them, ‘you are the problem’, ‘we have to lock you down’… that encourages a sense of civil disobedience and disorder. It really distracts from the sense of community, and if you destroy the community you destroy people’s mental health, and the more anxious and less trusting of the government and neighbours they become.”

Hickie said rather than flooding streets with police the government should have worked with local community leaders, such as religious leaders, teachers, sports teams and trusted community groups, to ensure communities worked together. He also advocated for more information to be available to the public in order to build trust.

“I’m one of the people that said we should have had the appropriate apps and technology to let people know, at a community level, from that start, which suburbs, which place had cases. So they could act responsibly, so they can proactively engage … You have to trust people with that information.”

Prof Patrick McGorry, a psychiatrist and the executive director of Orygen youth mental health facility – where two staff members have been diagnosed with the virus in the past fortnight prompting a facility lockdown – said the “state v state” mentality that has grown over the past week has been destructive.

“I think some of the language used by some of the state ministers, not so much the premiers, but the state ministers in New South Wales was really disappointing,” he said.

“You know, ‘we don’t want you here’ – almost saying ‘we will hunt you down if you cross the border’. It’s really derisive actually. The messaging has got to be ‘we’re all in this together’ and the messaging yesterday was pretty deplorable, almost like Victorians were suddenly pariahs.”

On an individual level, McGorry said this divisiveness could damage vulnerable people’s mental health.

“There will be a lot of people pushed a little bit more towards the edge of the cliff … That’s why it’s so important that the messaging is that this is a temporary setback.”

Victorians were from Thursday met with police patrols at entry points into suburbs including Broadmeadows and Taylors Lakes. Flashing signs on highways urged: “Protect your home. Get tested”. Police patrolled on foot and on horses. Supermarkets reimposed restrictions on purchases of certain goods. Hundreds of public health staff knocked on doors in hotspots, urging people to take a Covid-19 test and supplying testing kits. It was a wake-up call: the virus is still here, and it is devastatingly infectious.

While earlier on in the outbreak Victoria escaped the devastation of outbreaks like the Ruby Princess Cruise ship debacle that left 22 people dead, there was a mood in Victoria and the rest of Australia at the time that the same could happen elsewhere. Now that Victoria is facing its disaster, the rest of the country seems to have moved on, firmly focused on returning to normal.

The challenge of lockdown

However, on Thursday, the first sign came that authorities were beginning to appreciate the impact a second lockdown was having on Victorians. Deputy chief medical officer Prof Michael Kidd held a press conference with no mention of keeping Victorians out or away, or of fines and patrols. Instead, he offered some compassion – even hope.

“We know this is a very worrying and challenging time for you all,” Kidd said. “The response in Victoria is a response that is not just protecting the health of you and your loved ones, but is protecting the entire population of Melbourne and Victoria and the entire population of Australia. They know that many people finding themselves back in lockdown today will be feeling anxious and fearful, many may be angry and frustrated and many may be feeling somewhat despondent.”

He urged people who were struggling to reach out to services like Lifelineand Beyond Blue.

“It may help to recall that we all came to understand and … came to value during the first period of being in lockdown, the importance of staying connected with each other, even while we are physically distanced,” he said. “There are many challenges of going back into lockdown, but we have experienced this before. We have established our own ways to cope, so please remember the things that you learned the first time.”

By Friday, there were signs that the Victorian government too were beginning to appreciate the need for compassion among the stern warnings. Victorians having to stay at home because of renewed coronavirus restrictions would receive extra mental health services, with an additional $1.9m to be allocated so opening hours of counselling clinics could be extended. Mental health response teams would also receive a boost.

“For these communities staying at home is vital right now, but we know it can be really difficult emotionally – particularly if you’re already struggling,” the premier said in a statement. But at his press conference the same day, the stern messaging was back, with 66 new cases of the virus identified overnight.

“Obviously, those that are in those hot spot postcodes , as well as every single person across the state, need to keep following the rules,” he said.


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