In the middle of one night last week, Saffaa woke up to the sound of a distressed man yelling for help from the fourth-floor apartment above her.
“Can you hear me Australia, can you hear me? My words are being suppressed … no one is helping me,” he yelled.
Saffaa, who did not want to use her last name, was afraid of what he might do next.
“I said to him, ‘how can I support you; how can I help you?’ Cops were downstairs and security guards were just looking at him,” Saffaa says.
Saffa hadn’t met any of her neighbours in the Common Ground Towers in Camperdown, but after the building was plunged into a hard lockdown earlier this month, she became determined to do all she could to help them.
More than 100 residents in the social housing estate in inner-city Sydney were plunged into hard lockdown on 2 September for 14 days, following the detection of four Covid-19 cases in the building.
The building, managed by Mission Australia, is home to many vulnerable residents who have poor mental health and disabilities that require special care.
The hard lockdown is due to lift on Thursday, but many say they are afraid they won’t be the same after the ordeal.
Saffaa, who is a disability support worker, has bipolar disorder and says she has struggled to keep her mental health under control in isolation.
“The first six nights I did not sleep or eat, I did not sleep one second. I was delirious by the sixth day until my GP finally gave me Valium. I’ve never been on Valium in my entire life,” Saffaa says.
She was about to leave for work on 2 September, when she was told her building was subject to lock-in orders from NSW Health and nobody could leave their rooms.
Police, health workers wearing full PPE, and security guards were soon out the front of the building.
“It was like my worst nightmare [for my mental health]. I usually go for a run, and I ride my bike for two hours every day … it was a disaster.”
In addition to worrying about her own mental health, she now calls her elderly neighbour on the floor beneath her three times a day. He doesn’t own a microwave, so for the first week of the lock-in he was unable to heat up the frozen meals provided by NSW Health.
He’s been relying on food donations from other community members, which Saffaa has helped organise for him.
Residents, including Saffaa have taken to social media to request additional help, calling on those in their communities to stand in solidarity with them.
They believe they’ve been unfairly treated and have alleged there has been over-policing and searches of food and care packages, without justification.
Resident Robin El Hajj says the community’s response has been uplifting.
On the weekend, dozens of people attended a solidarity march organised by the Common Ground Community Group.
“The terrifying thing was being locked down, [it felt] you were on our own and isolated, [but] after the protest, I just felt more connected, I felt there was more solidarity from the community,” El Hajj says.
“It was just amazing that people would risk a $5,000 fine to show their support. It made my day.”
However, the protest was shut down by police over what they say was a breach of lockdown restrictions.
Advocacy group Legal Observers NSW said the heavy police presence at the solidarity march contributed to residents’ anxiety.
“It contributes to the negative mental health of residents because when communities can’t show their solidarity for one another without being almost immediately moved on by police, under dubious legal justification, it really impacts people’s capacity to feel supported,” a spokesperson for the Legal Observers NSW group says.
In an open letter, Legal Observers NSW condemned “inappropriate policing” imposed on residents throughout the duration of the lockdown. “The sudden and poorly communicated hard lockdown of Common Ground residence, run by Mission Australia, has left residents confused and distressed,” the open letter read.
The letter was signed by organisations including Amnesty International, Shelter NSW and Tenants Union New South Wales.
In response to the complaints, a NSW Police spokesperson said: “Police officers are at the site to ensure compliance with the Public Health Orders.”
“Police are only inspecting a delivery if it is identified as suspicious by the NSW Health staff at the location.”
El Hajj believes there are deeper issues at play, which allowed police and NSW health to treat residents unfairly.
“I definitely think that there’s a class disparity issue. There’s a difference between people who are perceived to be self-sufficient and working in the community and having a private rental who enjoy greater freedoms and those who live on say a disability pension, live in housing. That’s discrimination,” El Hajj says.
The building is run by Mission Australia, with many of its residents having previously experienced rough housing.
Mission Australia did not want to comment on specific cases but referred to a statement on their website.
In the statement, Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey says staff have been “proactively calling tenants, acting on calls received by tenants to meet their needs”.
“We have been keeping in touch with tenants daily by dropping information flyers under doors, SMS, emails, bespoke services for tenants without phones, a Facebook page for tenant updates, daily Zoom chats for tenants, as well as a dedicated 1800 number that tenants can call,” the statement reads.
But Saffaa says when she requested a call from a psychiatrist, she was unable to find any help. She was given information on numbers to call and says that left a lot of the leg work up to her, which she says in her poor mental health was “not possible”.
El Hajj agrees. It was very difficult for El Hajj not to worry about neighbours who had been suffering poor mental health. In some cases, El Hajj felt the need to go over and knock on their doors to check on them, despite not being allowed to leave the room. This is something El Hajj says will probably stay with some residents even after lockdown eases.
In a statement, a spokesperson from Sydney Local Health District said they were working with Mission Australia to “ensure all residents have had access to clinicians from the district’s mental health and drug health services, regular welfare checks, daily deliveries of food and pet supplies and access to laundry services”.
In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255