How coronavirus closed in on the City of Hume

By Sumeyya Ilanbey and Melissa Cunningham

For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.

In early September, Harmeet Bedi received a notification from the Department of Health. Her five-year-old daughter, Baneet, had been exposed to COVID-19 at a Craigieburn childcare centre, and the family were told they would need to go into quarantine.

As more staff, children and parents linked to the childcare centre became infected with coronavirus, their 14-day quarantine was extended. It’s now been almost three weeks since the Craigieburn family have stepped outside their home.

“The virus is all around us,” Ms Bedi says. “You feel targeted by it. We feel like we have been left to fend for ourselves out here. You feel like sitting ducks.”

Harmeet Bedi, Sarabjeet Singh and five-year-old Baneet say they feel like “sitting ducks”. Credit:Justin McManus

So far, they have tested negative. But they are among tens of thousands of families in the City of Hume – the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak – who were exposed to the virus, and forced into isolation, either as positive cases or close contacts.

“We have no idea when we will be allowed to leave our home,” Ms Bedi says.

“But even when we are allowed to leave, there is a sense of just nervously waiting until you get told you’ve been at another exposure site. Will it be at the supermarket or the chemist? Many people around here are very scared.”

On Friday morning, general practitioner Umber Rind took to social media, revealing dozens of the 46 Victorians on ventilators in intensive care with coronavirus were from the tighknit Arabic-speaking community in the northern suburbs.

Dr Rind, who has Arabic heritage, likened the scenes confronting doctors in the intensive care unit to a horror movie. Young and old in induced comas, strapped to breathing machines, their organs failing.

“This is not is not an exaggeration. It is a catastrophe,” Dr Rind said. “They are our people. Not one of them is vaccinated. The numbers are stacked up against us unless we act together. COVID is real.”

Roughly 60 per cent of the Austin Hospital’s intensive card ward is occupied by Arabic-speaking patients – a situation doctors in Australia have never seen before.

“It is heartbreaking, these are people in the community that we know,” Dr Rind says. “I feel sad because this was all so predictable. It makes me so upset that our area in the north was not targeted for vaccines earlier.”

FEAR, FRUSTRATION AND FATIGUE

COVID-19 has exploited vulnerabilities globally, and has pelted the City of Hume for the past 18 months. While the stark contrast of haves and have-nots has always existed in the melting pot of Melbourne, the pandemic has widened that gap.

A once-bustling shopping strip in Dallas, 20 kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD, is deserted as the virus rapidly spreads through the municipality. Non-essential shopfronts are shuttered, and grocery stores are barely surviving as a few masked locals meander through.

Outdoor tables, usually occupied by elderly men smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon, stand empty. The community hub, once a popular meeting ground for locals, is dormant as Hume residents with coronavirus.

A small number of locals meander through the once-bustling Dallas shopping strip. Credit:Luis Ascui

Traders told The Age their businesses were desperately clinging for life as shops around them became exposure sites, visitors were locked in 14-day quarantine, and other potential patrons were scared off. Businesses are hurting, not just because customers haver dried up, but because of delivery delays due to the outbreak.

None of the traders wanted to be identified when The Age visited this week, afraid of even sharing their observations and potentially identifying their businesses in a story about the pandemic. “We’re so worried, everyone is scared, may God protect us,” one said.

Fear is gripping the region, according to Hume mayor Joseph Haweil, with people acutely aware an essential trip to the grocery shop could send them into quarantine, or, even worse, expose them to the virus.

“The people around here are very fatigued, very tired, very frustrated, and this added element of COVID being so prevalent in the community has put many people on the edge,” Cr Haweil says.

“For a long time people were concerned about the economic element, worried about their businesses no longer being allowed to operate, or they’ve lost their jobs. More recently, people are saying they’re worried for their own safety, health and wellbeing.”

Victoria has recorded 10,000 cases since mid-July, when the state entered its fifth lockdown.

Health authorities believe the virus was either a new incursion or quietly seeding through existing transmission chains. Either way, Melbourne’s north bore the brunt of the outbreak, and frustration now runs deep within that community.

Since the state’s first Delta case in mid-July, about one third of the total cases were detected in Hume. Of almost 5000 cases reported in the municipality since the pandemic began, two-thirds were detected in recent weeks.

So, why has the virus spread like wildfire in the region? It’s not simply because of egregious rule-breakers. COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar on Saturday said about 55 per cent of transmission has occurred within the home, and the remaining through social interactions between households – someone helping their mother do chores or another popping in to see their cousin. The virus has exploited Hume’s weaknesses, accentuated society’s fault lines and exacerbated the city’s divide.

In comparison to many other areas, the region has low vaccination rates, and fewer GPs per head of population. Until recently, it did not have a state-run vaccination hub. Its workforce is largely young and mobile, and it has a high number of large, multi-generational families, many of them new arrivals. These factors have helped create a perfect storm for transmission.

Hume is densely populated. It’s home to 240,000 people, about 4.5 per cent of Greater Melbourne’s population, with an average household size of 3.1 people, compared with Greater Melbourne’s 2.7, according to SGS Economics and Planning.

When the fast-moving Delta variant infects one member of a family, it can rapidly spread through a home. In Hume, where large families are common, that effect is more pronounced. While the municipality has about 3.9 per cent of all households in Melbourne’s metropolitan region, it has 8.5 per cent of the households with more than six residents, and 10 per cent of households that have more than eight people.

Fifty-four per cent of Hume’s workforce are essential workers who might need to travel for their job, making it the sixth-most mobile local government area in metropolitan Melbourne. Comparatively, about 35 per cent of workers in the affluent Stonnington, Yarra and Port Phillip regions potentially need to travel.

Blue-collar regions, like Hume, were, in effect, disproportionately exposed to the virus through work so the rest of the state could safely lock down, suppress the spread of COVID-19 and protect the healthcare system.

“I think it does highlight that Hume and a few of these outer areas have higher risk factors, which would mean there’s potential for residents in that area to contract COVID more easily, and spread it within their larger households,” said Julian Szafraniec, SGS Economics and Planning’s principal and partner.

RACE BETWEEN THE VACCINE AND VIRUS

Despite its vulnerabilities, Hume’s access to vaccines was among the lowest in Victoria. As soon as the federal government declared in February that general practice clinics would be the “cornerstone” of Australia’s vaccination scheme, the rollout was doomed to be inequitable.

While Yarra had 8.5 GPs per 1000 residents, Stonnington 6.8 and Monash 5.5, Hume lagged far behind with only 2.9 GPs per 1000 people.

Osama Jabry received his COVID-19 vaccination from nurse Sonya El-Abbas, accompanied by his wife Manal Kareen, and children Rokaya and Hussein at Broadmeadows Town Hall vaccination hub.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Then there was the advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which ultimately assessed individual risk, as opposed to societal risk. It stated vaccines should be prioritised for quarantine workers, healthcare staff, the elderly and the ill. Those who were younger, mobile and more likely to spread the disease were not considered a priority for inoculation.

So, the City of Hume – where large swathes of the region were ranked as “most disadvantaged” on the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Index of Relative Socio-economic Advantage and Disadvantage – with a young population, was sent to the back of the queue, despite its vulnerabilities.

“This whole time we were in the wilderness, yelling out, ‘Hey we know the demographic of this area – it has a low socio-economic status, people who work across different shifts and jobs, travel from place to place to get to work, have large families. This is a recipe for disaster’,” Cr Haweil says.

In early September when coronavirus cases skyrocketed, Hume again proved to be a fertile ground for transmission.

On September 5, only 26 per cent of the eligible population was fully vaccinated, and 48.2 per cent had received one dose. The statewide average at the time was 37.2 per cent and 59.7 per cent, respectively. Since then, vaccination uptake has increased by one third, as health authorities diverted resources and attention to the region starved of adequate and equitable access to jabs.

About two weeks ago, the Commonwealth sent several hundred thousand extra Pfizer and Moderna jabs to GPs, pharmacies and state-run hubs in Melbourne’s north and west. The state government established a drive-through vaccination clinic at the old Ford factory in Campbellfield (which had cars banked up on the main road when The Age visited this week), a mass centre at Broadmeadows Town Hall, a culturally appropriate hub at Broadmeadows Community Hub (where half the patients required translators), and several walk-in pop-ups at schools.

Local GP Amrooha Hussain: “It’s a race between the vaccine and the virus.” Credit:Luis Ascui

“What was required in Hume was a big team effort, and everyone putting in the effort together … It’s now a race between the virus and the vaccine, I can see that playing out in Hume,” says local GP Dr Amrooha Hussain.

Ahmed Hassan, from Youth Activating Youth, said considerable effort was devoted to spreading accurate and timely information, raising concerns about a proliferation of fake news targeting his community.

“There are people struggling to breathe, and it’s pretty distressing speaking to them and their loved ones,” he says. “There was a lot of misinformation that led to vaccine hesitancy and led to people not getting vaccinated. What we’ve seen in recent weeks is people coming out in droves, saying they’re not going to risk getting infected.“

Kerim Buday, a Hume local, has phoned many people in recent weeks about the unfolding coronavirus crisis. Some want to know how they can help with the vaccination effort, others offer to support those infected or forced into isolation.

He cites the Turkish proverb, ‘Ates dustugu yeri yakar’ – translation: no one else can fully understand the pain or grieve as much as the person who suffers it – to explain the experience in Hume, where the virus has hit so close to home this year.

“People we know really well in the community are being affected; they are being hospitalised, they’re in intensive care,” he says.

“It also feels like every second place you walk into is an exposure site. It’s all around us, and it feels like it’s everywhere. More and more people are hesitant to step outside and get caught up. But, having said all of that, the community is really coming together, trying to help wherever it can with whatever it can.”

Though there is frustration and fatigue, there is also a deep sense of sorrow for all the people this tight-knit community who has lost to COVID-19.

Broadmeadows man Abdul was caught up in the large MyCentre cluster, that began when a staff member worked while symptomatic for about a week before getting tested, early this month.

One of his children caught the virus and passed it to her three siblings, mother and grandmother. Abdul said the elderly woman waited too long to call an ambulance or seek medical help, and she died, becoming Victoria’s first COVID-19 death this year. Like others gripped by the deadly pandemic, Abdul pleaded with people to get tested and vaccinated.

“I haven’t tested positive to COVID, Alhamdulillah (thank God). But COVID doesn’t care about your faith, your community, or your gender. COVID affects everyone the same,” he said.

”We just need to be mindful that some members of our community might not be as strong … and they might cop it the worst. My ex mother-in-law passed away from it, so please just follow the rules. I understand there’s lockdown fatigue, but if we don’t do this, our healthcare system will collapse.“

Cr Joseph Haweil, pictured at the Dallas suburban shopping strip, says there is fear, fatigue and frustration in the community. Credit:Luis Ascui

Despite a harsh lockdown, the virus continues to spread in the northern suburbs, infecting hundreds a day. Community leaders and groups have quietly banded together, sending food and supplies to the thousands isolated at home.

Dalal Sleiman is president of Australian Chaldean Family Welfare, a not-for-profit organisation supporting Chaldean and Arabic-speakers. During the outbreak, she has made videos providing vaccination information in Chaldean, Assyrian and Arabic.

She has supported eight large Arabic families in Hume, all infected with the virus, and countless other families isolating after being exposed to it.

One family she supported just received their first vaccination dose when the entire household was infected with the virus, including a 2-year-old boy, who got so sick he had to be taken to hospital and put in intensive care.

“One of the sons caught the virus from a colleague at work, and he did not know he was infected, and he came home and infected his whole family,” she says. “The family were so worried they thought they were going to lose their child … Mentally and emotionally people are doing it so tough.”

PANDEMIC OF THE UNVACCINATED

The Delta variant has changed the course of the pandemic. An increasing number of people have died at home with the virus in Australia this year, including two Victorian women and a NSW mother of three in her 30s.

Each day, staff at Cohealth – which supports about 40 per cent of those infected with coronavirus in Melbourne’s north and west – calls ambulances for people who fall critically ill at home.

Cohealth GP Nicole Allard says, while last year it was the elderly and frail, this year young, unvaccinated people are disproportionately falling seriously ill, most on or after day five of their diagnosis.

“We’ve got a lot of people in intensive care, in hospital, but what the public is not seeing is the high number of people who are very unwell at home,” she says.

Dr Allard says the disease is far milder for those vaccinated, and they rarely require intensive medical support.

If there could be a silver lining from the coronavirus pandemic, University of Melbourne researcher Jason Thompson hopes it will highlight, then help break, the entrenched societal patterns whereby diseases disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.

Across the world, lower socio-economic communities, the culturally and linguistically diverse, and those with insecure, but essential, work, have been infected, hospitalised, impoverished, and killed at the highest rates by COVID-19.

“This comes down to issues that are being raised across Australia about who’s going to be left behind in this vaccination race,” says Dr Thompson, who worked on the Victorian government’s epidemic modelling.

“The tragedy is that it will be the same people who are always vulnerable: the poorest, the people who don’t have social support or secure work. This will play out in coronavirus, like it does with everything else, whether it’s workplace injury, road safety or cardiovascular disease.

“We should be trying to do everything we can to help them catch up. And, that’s not just for coronavirus; it’s for everything.”

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