Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Responding with compassion



Panicked, anxious and without proper information, the residents of nine public housing estates in Flemington, North Melbourne and Kensington were put into a 'hard lockdown'. The government scrambled to contain the inclining and alarming positive cases of COVID-19. Residents paid a harsh price under these restrictions. They had no time to prepare. Their dignity as human beings was not prioritised. Key community organisations in the area were not consulted.

AMSSA volunteers (AAP Image/James Ross)

Despite this, the Australian Muslims Social Services Agency centre located across the North Melbourne public housing estates swiftly came to the aid of the community, opening the mosque doors to the wider community. Donations flooded the centre. Volunteers from across Melbourne arrived ready to support any way they could. Key volunteers came from Carlton and surrounding suburbs, mostly young African people were on the frontlines. They had used social media to reach out to friends, relatives and others locked in the housing estates to ask what they needed and then got to work.

When I arrived on day one, I was astonished by how organised and efficient the volunteers were. Some of the meals that were provided by The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), were circulated online by residents. Many non-perishable foods had perished. This food was well past the use by date. Meal packs had still not been delivered to the 3000 residents, who were hungry and anxiously waiting for any information on what would happen next.

AMSSA centre, largely headed by the youth faction prepared adequate meals and supply packs. These packages included fresh produce, culturally appropriate meals (halal), and essentials like, baby formula, nappies and period products. Volunteers walked across from the AMSSA centre armed with bags of food and delivered them to the foyer of the apartment blocks. This continued for hours.

Car loads of donations were taken down the road to the Flemington housing estates and Kensington. From their apartments residents waved down at volunteers, a show of gratitude. The residents who had become prisoners in their own homes, denied the four essential reasons that other lockdown suburbs received, were not forgotten by their community.

The obstacles faced by volunteers were disheartening and frustrating. The intimidating police presence, who have a strained relationship with the residents stemming from years of over policing, harassment and racial discrimination in the area was a great concern. A public health crisis fronted by police officers was a tense environment to be working under. Yet, the volunteers continued to deliver.


'As much as there is to celebrate, this is bittersweet. The government failed the residents, in more ways than one.'


The hardest obstacle to overcome was misinformation and conflicting information from government agencies. I asked DHHS workers how food would be given to the residents — they didnt know. I asked the police the same question — they didnt know. It was a logistical nightmare that only got worse. We understood this would be a difficult task for the government to coordinate, but getting supplies to residents was like navigating a minefield. Volunteers would be stopped by different agency representatives and asked to provide evidence of DHHS clearance. Other times they were simply let through. These concerns were brought up to the relevant government departments in consultation calls. The willingness of the community organisations to liaise with the government was a tremendous effort, if only it had been reciprocated at the beginning of the hard lockdown.

Currently, the community has used these conversations with the government to assist the residents. After four days a smoother system has come into effect; where there are clear guidelines and protocols for organisations, so they have the ability to help without added barriers. A community led and run call centre has been established to give the residents the right to access information.

East African Womens foundation, the organisation I am part of, helped elderly Somali women and those most at risk. We received distressed calls from women known to us, we worry for their mental health, as with all the residents. The community and community organisations stepped in when the government hadnt.

As much as there is to celebrate, this is bittersweet. The government failed the residents, in more ways than one. There are suggestions that the complacency of people living in public housing estates are to blame for such a harsh reaction. This is wrong, the community takes this pandemic very seriously. It is our vulnerable that we want to protect most. The pandemic should be led by compassion and empathy. The government should look to AMSSA and take note, this is how you respond to a public health crisis.



Najma Sambul is a Somali-Australian writer. She writes both non fiction and fiction, but is adamant fiction writing still has a future. She has a number of unpublished short stories and a half completed comedy screenplay on her laptop. She remains optimistic about their future.

Main image: AMSSA volunteers (AAP Image/James Ross)

Topic tags: Najma Sambul, COVID-19, Melbourne housing towers, AMSSA, East African Women’s foundation



submit a comment

Existing comments

“A community led and run call centre has been established to give the residents the right to access information.“ Good idea. Great subsidiarity. A one-stop info service run by a language group for anyone in that language group living in the flats. Organisations such as the AMSSA should have a permanent liaison arrangement with SVdP and Salvos to be used in emergencies like this.

roy chen yee | 09 July 2020  

It is heartening to learn of such a positive community-led response to the various needs of those caught inside the public housing blocks, a response that involves many young people, but it is disheartening to hear of the at times ineffective and downright discourteous response of government agencies. Whilst the lockdown may well have kept many of the inhabitants from real danger, that action and its aftermath could and should have been better planned.

Jenny Holmes | 09 July 2020  

I live in another State and was seeing conflicting comments on what was happening. As we are a multi-cultural society, announcements and information ought to be available in various languages. At least, a phone number where people who do not speak English can get correct information.

Geraldine | 09 July 2020  

Thankyou for this inspiring story. What a pity we don't find news like this in the main-stream media, who would rather publish the inflammatory nonsense of Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bold.

Peter Schulz | 09 July 2020  

Great work!!! humbled and inspired by the work of the Muslim groups. Let's remember our oneness in God!

Johanna Blows | 09 July 2020  

Thank you Najma Sambul for your inspiring story about people coming forward to assist others in a time of crisis. It is always wonderful to hear such news because it reminds us that people can cooperate together for the common good no matter what their ethnic origin, life philosophy, gender or gender preference is. We need to value our multicultural nation by showing friendship to and support for all. And, as we have the COVID-19 pandemic and massive pollution that threatens us all, this spirit of friendship and cooperation needs to be extended internationally. As ABC TV reminds us with the chorus of the song "I am, You are, We are Australian": We are one, but we are many And from all the lands on earth we come We'll share a dream and sing with one voice "I am, you are, we are Australian" Just to remind is that we live in a global village and of our international interconnectedness, I think we should add another line: "We are citizens of the world."

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 10 July 2020  

Thank-you for this information and for all the wonderful support for these needy people.

Anne Morrison | 10 July 2020  

Here is an account by a nurse of what happened at the Melbourne towers. She was there from day one. It is a moving, powerful account. I suggest anyone who wishes to comment here should read this first. And have a good think about what it tells us. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-11/testing-residents-in-melbournes-public-housing-nurse/12443060

John | 11 July 2020  

John. Thank you for the reference to the ABC news item recording nurse Lisa Peters account of testing residents in Melbourne's locked down towers. It is a damning testament to the sensationalised breaking news items and selective reporting that comes from this country's self-interested news services. Clearly, from the nurse's first hand account, the residents were accepting, cooperative, grateful and well cared for with food and essentials not a picture presented by the news media generally. Perhaps we should be locking down the reporters whose effusive misinformation in the quest for ratings and press/media awards causes nothing but societal disruption and vilification of others. And, surprise, surprise, the police were also very helpful and respectful towards the residents - not very news worthy that!!

john frawley | 13 July 2020  

Najma, thank you for this opinion. I respect what you have said. There is a deeper context that needs to be understood. About the importance of trained first responders. About the deep and profound threat to life the people in the towers faced. The options available. The veracity of this virus. People's lives were saved. I suggest to anyone interested a read of Professor Janet McCalman's Facebook notes. It is compelling, educative, highlights the complete legality and importance of a shutdown. https://www.facebook.com/janet.mccalman The initial shutdowns of the housing towers caused deep anxiety among many groups in Melbourne in the last week. The media, naturally, followed up on this story. There were some, mainly articulate, confident, young people, often of African origin, who were quick to speak for the towers community. The media were quick to embrace their insights. Many people, often of the liberal left, see dangers in governments acting with full powers. Images of fences, lockdowns, of minority people of mostly refugee background, draw parallels to that other issue where its argued that vulnerable asylum seekers were quickly stigmatised and imprisoned. Alarm bells rung. Advocates rushed to defend, to proffer an opinion, to accuse. The main first language in the towers is Vietnamese. Other large groups include Arab and Cantonese speaking people. African origin people are the second largest grouping in the towers yet measure the wider media coverage and there is a disparity. Were all voices heard? It’s clear now that there is a wide range of views within the towers. I have spoken to several within the towers, mainly of Vietnamese origin. They have said that the young and articulate who spoke did not speak for the towers people. That many recognised immediately the health danger. That they support what was done. Are grateful for the quick action. That the food issue and difficulties of early days were minor, really, and quickly overcome. This was one of the most serious health challenges, wrapped within a health crisis, faced in Victoria’s history. The towers proved to be heavy with Covid19. The shutdowns saved lives of some people within the towers; perhaps avoided a near broader massive catastrophe. One person from Melbourne has triggered the Sydney hotel outbreak that threatens a second wave. Hundreds were infected in the towers. We may still be overwhelmed. Hospital resources beginning to stretch. And the people in the towers who will have to be hospitalised will receive the best treatment in the world, because we are not overwhelmed.

John | 15 July 2020  

Obviously one would hope that such austerity measures would have been "planned" better. But planning under our domocratic system is slow and labourious and nothing is achieved overnight. We are no longer living in a democracy but under a command economy.... and so in such emergenc circumstances, shouldnt we be thinking of the potential to save lives through these harsh lockdown rules rather than stirring up division and pity? I have even heard complinats by some cultural groups that food handouts in the housing commision towers were not "culturally appropriate". This is PC gone made. Im sure the religious guidelines in these situation that dietary are only binding when people are not under duress. What sort of world are we becoming where recipients of charity simply sit back and whinge and whine:? Not in my day... my ancestors would be rolling in their graves,

AURELIUS | 20 July 2020  

I refer you to the following extract of a press release and suggest that using the Charter of Human Rights and responsibilities Act (Victoria) and the Ombudsman's investigation may be a powerful avenue for improving 1. Quality of Accommodation, 2. Crowding Issues, 3. maintenance of essential services 4. Improved funding for State housing generally. The press is on the case; the improvement of the economy requires "shovel-ready" spend; and residents are both victims and heroes - go for it! Below is the press release Friday 17 July 2020 Liberal Nationals welcome Ombudsman investigation into housing towers The Liberal Nationals have welcomed the Ombudsman’s announcement that her office will investigate the treatment of residents in a North Melbourne public housing tower. More than 3000 Melbourne residents, with less than an hour’s notice, were told they could not leave their homes, when Andrews ordered nine public housing towers into complete lockdown earlier this month. The Ombudsman’s investigation will consider the conditions under which people were, and continue to be, detained at 33 Alfred Street, the nature and accessibility of official communications with residents and advocates, the nature and appropriateness of restrictions upon people’s access to fresh air, exercise, medical care and medical supplies while detained and whether the Department of Health and Human Services and other relevant authorities have acted compatibly with, and given proper consideration to, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act.

Keith Hugh McLachlan | 23 July 2020  

Similar Articles

Community in the face of insecurity

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 09 July 2020

For Victorians this last week has been taxing. It began with rising numbers of COVID-19 infections, moved to the lock-down of housing commission towers enforced by hundreds of police and has continued with the lockdown of the whole Melbourne area for six weeks and exclusion from other States.


Respecting dignity during public housing lockdown

  • Joshua Lourensz
  • 07 July 2020

Many of us, of course including residents of the towers, understand the exceptional response that COVID-19 has required, and that these lock downs form a part of the response. But when the situation has meant that people must, unless there are exceptional personal or medical grounds, remain house-bound for at least five days, we must be careful in the way we go about caring for the health of people.