Our lives matter – Melbourne public housing residents talk about why COVID-19 hits them hard


Sandra Carrasco, University of Melbourne; Majdi Faleh, University of Melbourne, and Neeraj Dangol, University of Melbourne

The toughest lockdown imposed on residents of public housing in Australia has been lifted, but their COVID-19 ordeal isn’t over – and recovering from their traumatic experience will take time. Recent events have highlighted the inequalities that make residents of the locked-down Melbourne housing towers highly vulnerable in the COVID-19 emergency. Nearly 350 residents have been infected to date.




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This article draws on our interviews with residents and community and religious leaders after the buildings were locked down. The interviews followed a two-year study of the housing conditions of migrants from the Horn of Africa living in inner Melbourne estates.

These are places of social and economic disadvantage. The current crisis has laid bare the conditions that endanger this community. These include large extended families (up to nine people), low incomes, high unemployment, limited access to education, challenges of communicating in English and poor internet access.

Click on table to enlarge.
Data: ABS 2016, Author provided

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but its impacts do in ways felt far beyond the health sector. Studies of disasters and emergencies have shown events like these hit the poor hardest. Recent studies in the US confirm the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing existing inequalities and vulnerabilities of lower-income groups and ethnic minorities.

Voices from the towers

African residents of the Melbourne public housing estates raised their voices during the lockdown, despite their fears and sense of exclusion.

Residents locked down inside Melbourne’s public housing towers speak out.



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Anisa, a Somali-Australian resident of a North Melbourne tower, told us:

The enforced lockdown is a direct reflection of the systematic inequalities [people face] in public housing.

The lockdown brought back wartime memories of dispossession and the sense of persecution they still feel. Iman, a Somali resident of one of the affected towers, said:

This community is made up of many people who have fled war, who have complicated mental health issues, whose families have been racially profiled and targeted by police.

Anisa told us:

We need a health response, not a police response, at the end of the day.

Lack of communication between residents and authorities is the result of a pre-existing disconnection and lack of mutual trust.




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This explains residents’ claims that initial government support was incompatible with their values. Awatif, a Sudanese resident of the Flemington towers, said:

Many people [here] are Muslims. They [the government] brought non-halal food, they do not understand what we eat.

The precarious living conditions of public housing have also been exposed. Issues such as poor ventilation already affected people’s health. Muhubo, a Somali resident of Carlton’s public housing estates, said:

I have asthma and I need to take fresh air because inside the houses sometimes it is stuffy. Ventilation inside is not good enough.

Overcrowding makes isolation of ill residents impossible, and there other, related challenges. As Muhubo said:

In many families only the mother lives with the children. If she gets sick it will be difficult for the children, especially if they are small.




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Police attend North Melbourne public housing under lockdown.
Sandra Carrasco, Author provided

Adding to residents’ problems

The lockdown made existing problems worse. Tewelde Kidane, who chairs the Melbourne Eritrean United Community, spoke of family tensions increasing in confined spaces, which combined with lack of privacy results in increases in domestic violence. Sultan Abdiwali, the imam of the North Melbourne mosque at the heart of the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA), also referred to increased family violence and drug use, as did Awatif:

Some young people get sometimes drunk, scream at night, [and use] drugs.

However, the lockdown also showed the community’s capacity to support their fellows in need. “We have been receiving support and help from our local community even before this extreme lockdown,” the resident Iman said.

Asked how the African communities were supporting their members, the imam said:

[A] Somali community group collected donations and provided help to public housing residents. Other groups found it hard to manage such activities.

Most residents do not question the lockdown, but object to the lack of information. Anisa said:

I do know that if we, the residents, were treated with some decency and respect and received enough information on the lockdown, our concerns would be a lot more at ease than they are now.

Carlton estate residents volunteered to assist health professionals with door-to-door COVID-19 testing. The volunteers helped overcome language and cultural barriers. Muhubo explained:

People are scared about being ill so they are happy to get tested. People know that they need to get tested and they help with that.

Carlton public housing volunteers help with door-to-door COVID-19 testing.
Tewelde Kidane, Author provided



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Residents use social media, WhatsApp and Zoom to maintain communication within the community. However, many lack internet access. Muhubo said:

[…] for the families that do not have the internet at home and have kids it is difficult. The school gave some kids a small modem with some internet access, but it is slow and the data is limited.

Good communication between authorities and residents is crucial to understand and manage the risks, but this requires proper risk governance. As Tewelde explained:

Many people just live here and rely on the community and don’t know what happens in the rest of the city. We sometimes feel disconnected from the rest.

Language barriers and low literacy in our community members is a big issue. Some people might even have troubles calling emergency numbers like 000.

Building trust will take time

Mutual trust must be built. Yet, surprisingly, government agencies often do not communicate directly with residents.

These days the Carlton public housing residents receive regular communication from Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre (CLNC). The centre has gained their trust by working with vulnerable communities for many years. Muhubo said:

Even now we do not get more information from the housing commission. These days we get messages and updates from the school [CNLC], although most of the messages are in English.

Community members’ social networks are part of what has been called an “economy of affection”, a collective support structure characteristic of African communities.

A community meeting during a weekly farmers’ market at a public housing estate in Carlton before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sandra Carrasco

Government agencies need to start building communication channels that acknowledge existing community leaders and networks. Awatif said:

They [the government] need to link the leader and community workers to work with them, teach people how to use sanitisers, make them aware of social distancing, bring professional cleaners.

Understanding these communities and the risks they face will lead to better and more inclusive prevention, response and recovery from COVID-19.The Conversation

Sandra Carrasco, Teaching Assistant and Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne; Majdi Faleh, Teaching Assistant, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, and Neeraj Dangol, Research and Teaching Assistant, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Police in Sudan Aid Muslim’s Effort to Take Over Church Plot


With possibility of secession by Southern Sudan, church leaders in north fear more land grabs.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25 (CDN) — Police in Sudan evicted the staff of a Presbyterian church from its events and office site in Khartoum earlier this month, aiding a Muslim businessman’s effort to seize the property.

Christians in Sudan’s capital city told Compass that police entered the compound of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. and ordered workers to leave, claiming that the land belonged to Muslim businessman Osman al Tayeb. When asked to show evidence of Al Tayeb’s ownership, however, officers failed to produce any documentation, the sources said.

The church had signed a contract with al Tayeb stipulating the terms under which he could attain the property – including providing legal documents such as a construction permit and then obtaining final approval from SPEC – but those terms remained unmet, church officials said.

Church leader Deng Bol said that under terms of the unfulfilled contract, the SPEC would turn the property over to al Tayeb to construct a business center on the site, with the denomination to receive a share of the returns from the commercial enterprise and regain ownership of the plot after 80 years.

“But the investor failed to produce a single document from the concerned authorities” and therefore resorted to police action to secure the property, Bol said.

SPEC leaders had yet to approve the project because of the high risk of permanently losing the property, he said.

“The SPEC feared that they were going to lose the property after 80 years if they accepted the proposed contract,” Bol said.

SPEC leaders have undertaken legal action to recover the property, he said. The disputed plot of 2,232 square meters is located in a busy part of the heart of Khartoum, where it has been used for Christian rallies and related activities.

“The plot is registered in the name of the church and should not be sold or transfered for any other activities, only for church-related programs,” a church elder who requested anonymity said.

The Rev. Philip Akway, general secretary of the SPEC, told Compass that the government might be annoyed that Christian activities have taken place there for many decades.

“Muslim groups are not happy with the church in north Sudan, therefore they try to cause tension in the church,” Akway told Compass.

The policeman leading the officers in the eviction on Oct. 4 verbally threatened to shoot anyone who interfered, Christian sources said.

“We have orders from higher authorities,” the policeman shouted at the growing throng of irate Christians.

A Christian association called Living Water had planned an exhibit at the SPEC compound on Oct. 6, but an organization leader arrived to find the place fenced off and deserted except for four policemen at the gate, sources said.

SPEC leaders said Muslims have taken over many other Christian properties through similar ploys.

“We see this as a direct plot against their churches’ estates in Sudan,” Akway said.

The Rev. John Tau, vice-moderator for SPEC, said the site where Al Tayeb plans to erect three towers was not targeted accidentally.

“The Muslim businessman seems to be targeting strategic places of the church in order to stop the church from reaching Muslims in the North Sudan,” Tau said.

The unnamed elder said church leaders believe the property grab came in anticipation of the proposed north-south division of Sudan. With less than three months until a Jan. 9 referendum on splitting the country according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, SPEC leaders have taken a number of measures to guard against what it sees as government interference in church affairs.

Many southern Sudanese Christians fear losing citizenship if south Sudan votes for secession in the forthcoming referendum.

A top Sudanese official has said people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence. Information Minister Kamal Obeid told state media last month that south Sudanese will be considered citizens of another state if they choose independence, which led many northern-based southern Sudanese to begin packing.

At the same time, President Omar al-Bashir promised full protection for southern Sudanese and their properties in a recent address. His speech was reinforced by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s address during a political conference in Juba regarding the signing of a security agreement with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (also president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan), but Obeid’s words have not been forgotten.

Akway of SPEC said it is difficult to know what will become of the property.

“Police continue to guard the compound, and nobody knows for sure what the coming days will bring,” Akway said. “With just less than three months left for the South to decide its fate, we are forced to see this move as a serious development against the church in Sudan.”

Report from Compass Direct News