Ombudsman says “never too late” to apologise to public housing residents over lockdown
Deepa Gupta’s eyes become moist when she recalls the moment her North Melbourne public housing tower was shut down to contain a possible COVID-19 outbreak, sparking “chaos and confusion”.
She remembers being among 3000 residents detained in their homes “like criminals so no-one can escape” after her high-rise building was one of nine to be locked down in July 2020.
“I relive that moment as if it happened yesterday. I vividly recall, I went to the balcony and the police shouted back at me ‘go inside or we will arrest you’,” she said, as officers “surrounded us, forming a chain”.
“What was my fault? Just because I was a resident living here; it was predetermined I was lawless and a law-breaking criminal.”
Ms Gupta, who has 30 years of experience in public service and is a chartered accountant, spoke of her “horrendous experience” after the Victorian Ombudsman Debra Glass renewed her call for the state government to apologise to the public housing residents over the “unjust” measure.
“It still matters. We have been told residents felt disheartened and let down by the lack of an apology, and that it remains a barrier to rebuilding trust with the government,” Ms Glass said of her September report, which reviewed her recommendations made to the state government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While saying sorry may be difficult, if done well, the results are worth all the effort – and more. The act of recognition, accompanied by responsibility and regret, can provide comfort and release.”
“It is never too late to do so.”
For Ms Gupta, the act of an apology was important for residents to heal and regain their trust with authorities.
“The North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers’ residents are still waiting for an apology from the government. Given its unwillingness to accept my recommendation, it seems unlikely one will ever be offered,” she said.
“In reprieve of the huge hurt and damage we underwent, all we wanted was a small apology from the government, an acceptance of a mistake made.”
Another public housing resident, Emebet, an Australian resident of Ethiopian background, said she felt traumatised after being trapped in her home and prevented from shopping for fresh food.
The mother of two, who asked for her surname not to be used, said she had experienced two panic attacks since the ordeal, both of which resulted in attending hospital.
“I have never had a panic attack. I was walking, I was running, my heart was as strong as a horse,” she said.
“Now I’m scared, I can’t do anything, I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me again. What happened was a human right breach, 100 per cent.”
While she hopes the government will apologise, she has “lost hope” and is “not going to expect anything”.
Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL) also supported the Victorian Ombudsman’s renewed call for the government to apologise, which “recognises what occurred was wrong and a breach of human rights”.
“All the Victorian Government’s positive actions since the lockdown have been overshadowed because they have not acknowledged that what happened was wrong and should never happen again,” an IMCL spokesperson said.
The state government has made no apology for saving people’s lives, however, Ms Glass said she did not investigate or criticise the six state-wide lockdowns despite receiving multiple complaints.
But she noted, the public housing towers “remain the only lockdown, before or since, that took place on no notice whatsoever to affected people”.
The IMCL praised the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing for the investment into the public housing estates affected by the hard lockdown, particularly the Paving the Way Forward Program – a measure Ms Glass also supported.
“We support the efforts of the program in strengthening and building community-led responses. But that will need long-term ongoing investment and support,” the IMCL spokesperson said. •