On Monday evening, I volunteered to provide food assistance to the residents of the North Melbourne housing estate in lockdown.
Before my arrival, community volunteers from the local mosque had just delivered some food. Across the way in Flemington, Sikh community volunteers were providing trolleys of hot meals to residents.
Stacks of staple food boxes sat outside the entrance foyer of each of the housing towers waiting to be distributed. We stood among a sea of uniforms and officials—Victoria Police, Fire Rescue Victoria, State Government staff—in varying degrees of Protective Personal Equipment. Some were in surgical masks, with or without gloves, some donning protective goggles, and others in white hazmat suits with hoods and N95 masks, glowing bright in the night lights of the estate.
For the residents peering down on us, it must have been a bizarre sight. One gentleman appeared in the foyer of his home, asking when we might start bringing the food up to the apartments. He was ushered back inside. A lady could be heard crying out several stories up—was she crying out to us? We couldn’t tell. It was now after usual dinner time, and one by one, lights inside apartments started to flicker off as the teams on the ground assessed how best to get the food delivery job done.
We received infection control training, instructions on how to knock and quickly drop boxes at doors, how to socially distance inside the building and in the lifts. Directions on how to keep ourselves safe. As we moved from one high-rise tower to a block housing older residents, a policeman commented that this particular group had been pretty quiet during the day. ‘Haven’t given us any trouble,’ he remarked. Trouble? Everyone on the ground was well-intentioned and there to help, but rhetoric and tone matter a lot.
In the humanitarian world, agencies like the Red Cross, Save the Children or MSF are equipped to provide aid in times of emergency and are well versed in logistical support, often for much larger numbers of people such as those in refugee camps who have fled war, or those who have experienced massive disaster like earthquakes or cyclones. The work of humanitarian agencies is also underpinned by the fundamental principle of humanity, with its aim to relieve suffering, to ensure respect and to uphold the dignity of all people impacted by crisis. In times like this, even here in our home-town of Melbourne, these are principles that we cannot afford to forget.
In fact, in times like this when we are all anxious of what is to come next, perhaps fearful for our own health and safety, we need to intentionally be reminded.
Remember that these are people’s homes. Do not storm the buildings like this is a late-night raid or siege, or a scene from ET, the extra-terrestrial (1982). Consider how confronting it may appear to have strangers concealed in hazmat suits and masks boisterously bursting into a corridor or knocking loudly on a door when residents may be sleeping.
Remember that not all people may hear the door knocking because they may be hard of hearing, or that some may take longer to reach the door because of frailty or disability. Learn in advance where the most vulnerable people may be. If the gentleman in number 52 has a hearing problem, stop a moment longer at his door and politely knock a little harder.
Remember that some people may not be able to lift the boxes you leave on the floor at their home’s entrance. Take a minute to offer them advice on how to get the box’s contents into their kitchens.
Remember that you, food deliverer, may be the only face some of those in lockdown have seen all day, perhaps for a few days. You are a vital connection for these people with the outside world. COVID-19 restrictions mean you cannot linger, but this does not prevent you from smiling behind your mask, making your eyes dance, and making your voice sing. Wear a name tag or a photo, just as health workers around the world have been doing. Give a warm greeting, ask them how they are doing. See if they appear distressed. And tell someone who can help.
Remember that behind every door and through every window, there is a human face. Some of those people will be doing ok. Some will be angry. Some will be distressed. Some will be sad. Haven’t we all had those emotions and more during the roller coaster ride of this COVID-19 pandemic?
These are the things that we should have heard in the directions from those officials in charge. It was early days in the total lockdown of these residents – leadership and coordination was messy, complicated and confused, and everyone was caught up in the fervour of getting the logistics right. But these importance aspects of communication and compassion go hand in hand with infection control and logistical coordination.
Every person who steps up to provide food assistance to those residents in lockdown needs to be been reminded that they are there not only to provide essential food assistance, but to do the task with respect, dignity and humanity in solidarity with our own communities.
As metro Melbourne commences its next six-week period of lockdown, these humanitarian principles are true not only for how we treat those in the towers, but how we all respond to each other. At the beginning of the pandemic in Australia, I wrote about the importance of small acts of compassion by healthworkers as they go about their caring roles concealed behind masks. The ways in which are all behave amidst our sadness and fear of what is to come next in this pandemic are critically important in steering a course of kindness and integrity in crisis and ensuring we can all get through this together.
Rachel Coghlan is a palliative care physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, Deakin University. Her work focuses on the role of palliative care in humanitarian emergencies and crises such as wars, natural disasters and disease epidemics. She is a member of the Palliative Care in Humanitarian Aid Situations and Emergencies (PalCHASE) network, and a member of the Australian Palliative Care COVID-19 Working Group.