When Australia began to go into different stages of lockdown earlier this year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, social media fed rumours that were as infectious in Melbourne’s public housing flats as anywhere else. Coronavirus was deliberately engineered in a Wuhan lab; it spread through 5G; was part of Bill Gates’ secret plan to poison the population through mass vaccination – the conspiracy theories appealed to people of all ages on the Flemington estate. Nor Shanino, who lived in the estate as a boy and whose family are Eritrean refugees, says: “Some kids are out there saying, ‘Black people can’t get Covid-19.’ I’m like, ‘Where did you hear this?’ ‘It’s on a YouTube clip.’ I’m like, ‘You know I can go home and make a YouTube clip!’”
“Mum was like, watch this video on WhatsApp,” says Nor’s sister, Hiba, who still lives in the Flemington estate. “A lot of it is fear: the government has a vaccine but they don’t want to give it to people, that sort of thing. In the lift one day there was a lady wearing a mask. I wasn’t. She was practically saying to me, ‘Don’t speak to me, I’ll say hi to you when Covid passes.”
“I saw a video of someone in China eating a live rat; but you don’t know how real it was, or how long ago it was,” says Farhio Nur, who also lives in the Flemington flats and whose family are Somalian refugees. She’s friends with a lot of Asians; the racist material has upset them. Nor has a couple of friends who are Uber drivers, “and they were like, ‘We don’t pick up Asians.’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on, mathematically, do you know what the percentage is that if you picked up an Asian person, that they’re going to have Covid-19? And when a white taxi driver doesn’t want to pick you up at night because you’re two black guys, that’s exactly the same logic you’re using right now. Don’t become like the people that you don’t like’.”
Speaking in May, well before the lockdown of his old home, Nor agreed there had been positives in this period. “Kids are home connecting with their parents a bit more. But still, a lot of parents are complaining, ‘My kids are home, but they might as well not be here. They’ve got their headphones in. They’re on the phone. They’re in some chat group, they’re in their room for four or five hours at a time.’ My father was telling us about a grandmother he saw online. Whenever her grandkids came over, she had a little bucket at the door, and they all had to put their phones in there, otherwise they couldn’t get into her house.”
Even before last weekend’s lockdown, the pandemic had deepened a range of social ills in the flats. It has destroyed incomes, stopped access to public services, increased the withdrawal of already isolated youth, created a pressure-cooker environment for the families with many children in three-bedroom flats, and crushed Flemington’s exuberant communal life, including community sport.
Back in May, Hiba cited the now well ventilated examples of authorities’ alleged neglect of public housing tenants during the pandemic: dispensers empty of hand sanitiser within a week of being installed, too little public health information in community languages, a broken lift forcing tenants into closer proximity.
Education faced acute problems. Nor says that about a quarter of children at Debney Meadows Primary School, at the foot of the Flemington flats, don’t have an internet connection at home. “All of a sudden these kids were told, ‘OK, you’ve got to study online.’ Just something as simple as downloading and setting up Zoom – a lot of parents can’t do that. So a lot of the kids are struggling. Remember that 90 per cent of kids don’t have a desk at home, no room.”
Organised religion has also been hit hard. Midday Friday prayers – “a massive big deal in our community,” Hiba says – were cancelled as the mosque run from the headquarters of the Australian Muslim Social Services on Boundary Road closed its doors.
In May this year, the end-of-Ramadan Eid prayer came and went without the customary mass celebration in Debneys Park, normally attended by Somalis from all over the inner city and as far as Braybrook and Heidelberg. “Imagine having that taken away from you. I was anxious and sad,” says Farhio.
But potentially good news has come from the lockdown. In Flemington, Nor and Ahmed have worked closely with Andrew Crisp, the state’s Emergency Services Commissioner, who sits on their board, to address problems such as food delivery that have arisen in the lockdown. Nor says he has enjoyed generally good relations with the police over this period. When a young woman made an allegation of undue force used against her, Nor spoke with police officers, who calmly accepted the woman’s right to make a complaint.
In the chaos of this moment, one might miss small but vital signs that some elements of life in the flats have quietly changed for the better.
This is the fifth in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. These articles were commissioned by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute as part of a series on immigration and multiculturalism in Australia. Tomorrow: speaking out.