health

‘They’re terrified’: how Melbourne’s City of Hume became the centre of Victoria’s Delta outbreak


At the Broadmeadows Town Hall, Peter Resture is returning for his second dose of the vaccine. Resture, 52, is from just up the road, in Meadow Heights, and says the site is much busier today than it was six weeks ago.

“I just walked in,” he says of his first visit. He explains that he’s getting the jab for his wife. “She’s a nurse,” he says. “You gotta protect her customers.”

Some are from further afield. Hrithik Hrithik, 21, came from his home 12km away in Craigieburn, where there are more cases than in any other Melbourne suburb.

Why is he getting the jab? “It’s for us, so we can have freedom after that,” Hrithik says. “We can go for international travel, we can feel safe from Covid. Vaccination can only help.”

Hrithik may be getting the jab for “us”, but the example of Covid-stricken Hume is the latest to have put paid to the well-worn cliche that we’re in all in this together.

During Victoria’s second wave last year, only Wyndham – another large, culturally diverse blue-collar local government area – fared worse by number of Covid cases.

Now, it’s Hume’s turn. By Friday, there were 1,646 cases in the City of Hume, more than a third of all infections in Melbourne. Meanwhile vaccination rates are among the lowest in the state.

Community leaders are heartened by the recent surge in vaccinations, but they are frustrated too, saying their warnings were not taken seriously until it was too late.

“We have been for some time calling for extra resources,” says the 33-year-old mayor of Hume, Joseph Haweil. “But not only extra resources. It’s more about a different way of doing things.”

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“We know the demographics of this area,” Haweil continues. “Very large families, lower socio-economic conditions, a workforce that does the heavy lifting for the state, the people who actually work in the factories, who do logistics, who deal with warehousing, who run small businesses and keep things running, while people like me and many others can work from home.

“I think that should have been a warning to all policymakers to have got it right.”

A massive, diverse community

Hume is massive geographically and in population. With 240,000 residents, it’s on par with the city of Geelong.

The council area stretches north-west to the semi-rural Sunbury to Broadmeadows in the south, once a manufacturing powerhouse. Ironically given complaints about vaccine access here, the CSL plant where the AstraZeneca vaccine is produced is in Broady.

The latest outbreak is centred in Craigieburn and Roxburgh Park, where there are 811 active cases. These suburbs are home to sprawling housing estates, and most agree infrastructure and services have struggled to keep pace with rapid growth.

There are large multicultural communities in Hume, many new arrivals, and English proficiency is below the city average.

As daily case numbers in Hume rose from dozens to hundreds, the Victorian government established a drive-through vaccination clinic at the old Ford factory in Broadmeadows. More recently, it created a new walk-in, pop-up clinic at the urging of the council.

The latter is part of a “three-week blitz” announced by the state government to stem the tide in Hume.

“We do feel that we have been heard locally,” says Haweil.

In response to complaints from the Victorian government, the federal government has also promised allow more doses to flow into Melbourne’s hotspots like Hume.

A lack of access to vaccines

Dr Umber Rind runs a GP clinic in the Hume suburb of Campbellfield, where there are currently 143 active cases.

Rind’s clinic is one of several forced to close as an exposure site, stopping vaccinations and depriving residents of care. “We’re dropping like flies here,” she says.

Rind requested access to administer Pfizer doses at the start of the rollout, but her clinic is yet to receive a single dose.

“On Friday we missed our [first] Pfizer delivery because our clinic was closed as a tier 1 site,” she says. “Now we’re still waiting for it to be redelivered.”

The Age reported on the weekend that while 2,370 Pfizer doses were sent to Hume the previous week, more affluent council areas such as Boroondara, Whitehorse, Monash and Stonnington had each received more doses over the same period.

It is true these areas also have more GP clinics, but they also have only a few dozen cases between them. On Friday, Hume added another 132 infections to its total.

Dr Umber Rind
Dr Umber Rind is a GP at New Leaf Medical Clinic in Cambellfield. Hume is one of the LGA’s most affected by the latest Covid-19 outbreak. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Rind’s patients are diverse: Lebanese, Turkish, Italians and Greeks, and “a lot of people from a low socio-economic background.”

“I felt it was inequality,” says Rind. “I knew in the eastern suburbs, people were going to their GP clinics for Pfizer. Why did our clinics not have Pfizer and in the affluent suburbs Pfizer was freely available?”

“Until a week ago, we only had eight general practices in Hume administering Pfizer,” says Haweil. “And this is a municipality where the average age is 33.”

This week, Victoria reached a milestone of 70% of first doses administered. On Monday, the rate in Hume was growing quickly, but still only 55%. In Boroondara, home to Josh Frydenberg’s blue-riband Liberal seat of Kooyong, 74.9% of first doses have been administered.

Supply is the main problem, according to Haweil and Rind, but they both also acknowledge vaccine hesitancy among some locals, particularly about the AstraZenca vaccine.

“Things like Clive Palmer distributing pamphlets in some of the hardest-hit suburbs which questioned the efficacy of the vaccine has not helped,” Haweil says. “This is more than four or five months ago. Huge rounds of letterboxing with those flyers. That’s before Craig Kelly came into the equation.”

“It’s from the news and from the media, and it’s also conspiracy theories online,” says Rind. “They’ve seen all of that and now are terrified. For some of them it’s very hard to convince them. Others, the outbreak has changed their mind.”

Local solutions

This is why Haweil and Rind both advocate for local grassroots solutions to the crisis. They might point to the Craigieburn’s Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara, where 400 about people were vaccinated at a pop-up across two days last weekend.

Gurdeep Singh, the temple’s secretary, says he was flooded with requests after seeking expressions of interest on Facebook. There are language barriers, trust issues, and the temple is simply able to reach some people who would otherwise miss out. “People are more keen to come to the temple,” he continues. “They do their prayers as well and they can get their vaccinations.”

The Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara temple
The Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara temple, in Craigieburn was used as a pop-up vaccination centre. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Similarly, Haweil tells how on the first day at the council-run Broadmeadows pop-up this week, staff went to unusual lengths to reassure one man with concerns.

“He said, ‘Look, I’ll only get it if I see you make up the vaccine,’” says Haweil. “The staff took the time with language support to slow down the process … They took him into the back, they showed him the box, they showed him where it came from, they unsealed it, then they drew out the vaccine, they put it in the syringe, they made it up, and then they administered it to him. You can’t do that in a state hub.”

Back at the Broadmeadows vaccination hub, Abigail Marks, 21, speaks for many when she asks why cases are surging so quickly in Hume. “We’re in lockdown … vaccine rates are going up?”

The question of compliance – and its effect on cases numbers in Hume, as elsewhere – is complex. It’s also frustrating for residents. “It’s on the news,” says Resture. “Our suburbs, the north, is the worst. It feels shit.”

“I don’t think it’s just non-compliance which people like to infer,” says Rind. “It’s genuinely different job requirements, which are keeping this state going by the way.”

There is an acknowledgment from community members that authorities concerns’ over some people spreading the virus through home visits are also valid. Others have delayed getting tested, with stigma an issue at times and some have come to work with symptoms.

One way to look at it might be that given workers here are more mobile by necessity, the consequences of compliance simply graver than in suburbs where case numbers are lower. You are less likely to be lucky.

Struggling to cope

And amid it all, many are struggling. Every week, members of the Assyrian community meet to prepare 200 food hampers full of non-perishables including olive oil, grains, falafel, canned tomatoes, and, of course, translated Covid information.

The boxes are distributed to families in isolation and low-income new arrivals, including those who have lost their job due to the pandemic. Singh and the local Sikh community run a similar project.

There is plenty of need. Haweil notes the largest employer in Hume is Melbourne Airport, which is for “all intents of purposes shut down”.

Running the operation is local businesswoman Dalal Samaan, who fields calls for assistance from Assyrian community members and translates Covid messages to post on community Facebook pages with her day job running a disability care provider.

Volunteers Angel Barboura and her father Bashar, pack care packages for those isolating due to Covid-19 in Broadmedows
Volunteers Angel Barboura and her father Bashar pack care packages for those isolating due to Covid-19, in Broadmeadows. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Throughout the week, Samaan receives calls from new families that have caught Covid. “I know of couple of people, they are in ICU and on ventilators,” she says.

Fr Morris Daood, the local priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, says he knows about 10 families from his congregation who have caught the virus.

One woman known to Daood is also in ICU. “We have another young girl, she’s having difficulty breathing, but we pray that she’s all right,” he says.

Samaan translates for one man, Faris Al Baraq, 57, of Craigieburn, who is isolating in his bedroom away from his wife and two daughters.

Al Baraq, who has had one dose of the vaccine, is recovering OK. He’s cooped up in his bedroom watching things on his mobile phone. There’s no TV or internet in the room, he says. He thanks God that his wife and kids are negative so far.

“I was doing all the things required, masks, social distancing, but I didn’t expect to get it,” he says.

Cases are only expected to increase as Melbourne edges towards an expected peak. “The situation is not very pleasant,” says Samaan. “It is very scary to go out.”

Al Baraq recalls the moment last week when his daughter learned he was positive. “Her face changed,” he says. “She was terrified.”

“I tried to control myself,” he says. “Take it easy, and not have fear.”



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