CEO message: We need to engage our multicultural communities as key partners in any crisis response

We urge the government to consider the public housing lockdown a wake-up call. It has highlighted more than ever, the importance of listening to community voices. We need to engage our multicultural communities – especially young people and community leaders – as key partners in any crisis response, not only during implementation but much earlier, in planning and prevention efforts, and after, in recovery efforts too.

While the “hard lockdown” in Flemington and North Melbourne public housing estates caught everyone off-guard, local youth organisations and community volunteers on the ground have, without preparation and despite considerable challenges, managed to deliver a tailored response to ensure residents have had access to the basic supplies they needed, medical care and mental health supports, as well as relevant and quickly translated information about the lockdown situation.

The Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA) Youth Connect and Ubuntu Project have been central in responding to immediate needs and advocating for residents, both on the ground and online. Organisations like The Huddle and The Venny are running their programs online to help children and young people stay connected. Young volunteers on the ground have been impressive as ever, as they continue to show up for their community in this crisis and demonstrate what it means to be a true leader – and their determination cannot be underestimated.

While eight of the nine buildings have returned to Stage 3 Stay at Home restrictions with the rest of Melbourne, one building remains in hard lockdown and its residents cannot be forgotten. While CMY isn’t a frontline service on the ground in these areas, we have been reaching out to those who are and looking at possible ways we can support young people impacted, through our existing programs and services. We encourage our networks to channel your support into local organisations working on the ground to respond to the needs of young people, both now and beyond this lockdown.

I am reading the many stories from residents and young people living in the buildings and the various professionals who are providing support. One of our former Shout Out speakers and community leader Barry Berih spoke with us about the hard lockdown and some of the key challenges residents are facing.

He talked about the need to advocate for change in policy around community engagement and consultation with marginalised communities, and the importance of keeping people informed during crises such as this. Community leaders learnt the news of the hard lockdown at the same time as everyone else, Barry said, and a lack of communication has been one of the key challenges.

“From day one, since we heard the announcement of the hard lockdown, it’s just been trying to get information out there, just trying to communicate with our community.”

“Residents don’t know what what’s happening, we’re getting updates from the mosque each day about what’s happening on the ground. Community members are doing the job of delivering information, for their community.”

Barry said many of the residents employed as essential workers were unable to go to work, but were yet to receive the support payments that had been announced for those in hard lockdown. He also spoke about the ongoing impacts of the lockdown on residents’ mental health.

“One of the big challenges for us is mental health right now. Just being able to go for walks, get some fresh air…we’re just waiting. I’ve heard about people who are suicidal. We just need to get outside.”

Many in the community felt there could have been better preparation earlier in the pandemic, in terms of ensuring adequate supplies of sanitiser, masks and gloves, consistent cleaning of communal areas, as well as having key information translated and provided in a range of languages and formats to ensure all residents had access to the information they needed to keep their communities safer.

Barry said social media has been a really important avenue for people to stay connected with their community, tell their own stories, and document and share what is happening in their local areas, which can sometimes differ from what is being shared in public announcements or in the media.

We must listen and learn from the stories, experiences and knowledge of residents and community volunteers, as we prepare for the possibility of further “hard lockdowns” or increased restrictions during this pandemic. Now is the time to reflect on how such responses could be handled differently – what have we learnt from all that has transpired in recent weeks, and where could we improve outcomes for our multicultural communities and young people?

In a health crisis, we know that responding quickly is crucial. However, it must be done in a way that understands and respects the experiences, dignity and rights of those we are seeking to ensure remain safe and protected. As one volunteer wrote, communication is key, along with compassion for individual human experiences – regardless of whether it is coming from health workers, Government representatives, community advocates, or police. As challenges arise and decisions are made, those involved in response efforts must keep this at the forefront of their minds.

The plight of public housing residents over the past week brought into the spotlight a number of key issues for government, in regards to housing more generally, as well as preventative measures that could have been taken earlier in the pandemic to protect the health and wellbeing of communities.

We know that historically the Victorian Government has sought to engage with multicultural communities, listening and responding to community advocates and appreciating the need for specific and tailored communications rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet, in this situation, critical public health information and updates on the situation somehow failed to reach many – and we need to do better.

It is absolutely critical that we make greater investments in the highly capable, resilient, determined and compassionate young people at the heart of these communities, to ensure the events of the past week do not happen again.