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Melbourne Imposes Coronavirus Lockdown, Starts With A Group Of Public Housing Towers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here in the U.S., we are closing in on 3 million cases of coronavirus. Australia, on the other hand, is approaching 9,000 cases. And yet its second largest city - Melbourne - is headed for another broad lockdown starting Wednesday night. This new lockdown was announced after a spike in cases there. It follows a more targeted and controversial lockdown of a group of public housing towers imposed Saturday. Joining us now from Melbourne is Melissa Davey of The Guardian.

Welcome.

MELISSA DAVEY: Hello.

CHANG: Hi. So I understand the lockdown of those nine public housing towers on Saturday came after - what? - a couple dozen new cases that were tied to the towers. I know that you've been talking to residents there. How was all of this communicated to them?

DAVEY: For many of them, the first they realized that they were under lockdown was when they went to go outside and were met with police. As the Premier of Victoria announced this on Saturday, at the very same time as he was giving a press conference, about 500 police officers were going into these public housing buildings and around them to enforce the lockdown. Now, in the days leading up to this, other suburbs around Victoria had been placed into lockdown. They were considered the hotspots for the virus.

But we were given warning. We were given about 24 hours' notice. And I'm living in one of these hotspot suburbs, by the way. So we were also told that we can still go outside for exercise, for fresh air, to get groceries and for medical needs - very different lockdown to what we're seeing in these public housing towers. It needs to be said that these public housing towers do have unique factors that make them a higher risk of infection spread. There's no doubt about that. They've been likened to cruise ships, where you have a lot of people in a very small space with shared corridors...

CHANG: Right.

DAVEY: ...Shared elevators. But what's really being questioned is the way this was carried out - sending in police first and then informing people as it was happening.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, to be clear, then - it sounds like you're answering this question, but people are literally not allowed to leave the buildings at all, these nine public housing towers.

DAVEY: That's right - not until they've all being tested. Now, I've been getting mixed reports from police. So occasionally, police are letting them out for a bit of fresh air. But then they'll go out for fresh air the next day and be told, no. You're not allowed outside.

CHANG: And the government...

DAVEY: So they're really confined.

CHANG: I know that the government says that they're going to be providing meals, medical care, even a stipend for lost wages. Do you know if this is, in fact, happening?

DAVEY: It is happening, but it's happening sporadically. And some people are having much easier access to food than others. We've had reports of people being given expired food. These are culturally and linguistically diverse communities, so some of the food being given isn't appropriate - so, for example, Muslim people being given pork as part of their food packages. There are people living on their own with dementia who - for example, I was speaking to one woman whose grandmother is in the building. Now, she only speaks - she doesn't speak Australian. She's from China. She's got dementia. She only knows how to cook rice, really, and some very basic meals. And yet for three days, she hadn't been given any rice, a pretty basic supply. There - so there's really sporadic...

CHANG: Yeah.

DAVEY: ...Support.

CHANG: I mean, it's so hard to imagine anything remotely like this happening in the U.S. You know, here, we're having this raging debate over masks. Some people argue that mandatory mask orders infringe on their freedoms. Meanwhile, where you are, entire housing complexes have been locked down, people barred from any free movement. I mean, has there been an outcry in Melbourne over this kind of lockdown, or are people taking it more in stride?

DAVEY: So I think here, we really do trust the medical experts that have been informing government. We have been very receptive to public health messages. We've been adhering pretty well to social distancing and any other measures that we've been told. What people are really concerned about in this lockdown is, first of all, the police-first approach to these...

CHANG: Right.

DAVEY: ...Public housing buildings...

CHANG: Right.

DAVEY: ...And also just the lack of communication, the mixed messages about what residents...

CHANG: OK.

DAVEY: ...Are allowed to do, how long...

CHANG: OK.

DAVEY: ...They're under lockdown for.

CHANG: Melissa Davey is Melbourne bureau chief for The Guardian newspaper.

Thank you very much.

DAVEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.