A recurring theme of the current COVID-19 lockdown is the whirlwind changes in public health regulations. A month in, the experience of NSW’s lockdown is starkly divided along Sydney’s east and west, with the most punitive measures concentrated on south-west Sydney. For many, the sight of police officers and harsher rules presents a daily challenge not only to families but essential workers across the region.
Among the regulations that drew most confusion was the compulsory testing regime which came into effect earlier this month. Under this plan, all workers within the Greater Sydney region who commute more than 50 kilometers from lockdown zones must take weekly swab tests. Additionally, stricter requirements were separately imposed on Fairfield whereby residents who work outside the LGA must be tested every 3 days.
“Ethnic minorities are being disproportionately targeted”
Among south-west Sydney residents, there is a sense that, although strict restrictions might be necessary, the government’s deployment of police in the region is disproportionate. In comparison, the Berejiklian government adopted a suppression strategy for previous outbreaks in the city, where Sydney-wide lockdowns were strongly refrained from unless the local case numbers exceeded a high threshold.
Doja* is one of the residents concerned about the use of law enforcement in her area, having lived there since childhood. “While I do understand why these restrictions were put in place, they do stand in stark contrast to… the [Northern] Beaches and the eastern Suburbs,” Doja says, as she compared December 2020’s outbreak and the current impasse facing the state.
Others went further, describing the different COVID responses as evidence of glaring discrimination. Ahmed Ferkh is a senior Economics student at the University of Sydney who hails from the Lebanese-Australian community in Canterbury-Bankstown and is a part-time healthcare worker. “It’s a recurring theme that our communities are not prioritized and that we are treated as lesser,” he says. For him, the differing restrictions — particularly the deployment of mounted police forces — between the east and west represented a ‘tale of two cities’ which has historically existed between the regions. “Ethnic minorities feel that they are being disproportionately targeted when more police are introduced into our area due to COVID-19.”
COVID responses fail to recognise cultural differences
Another issue lies in a perception that NSW’s deployment of more stringent restrictions and policing lacked sensitivity to the multicultural character and significant blue-collar workforce in south-west Sydney. Concerns were previously been raised during Australia’s first COVID wave in April 2020 of discriminatory policing in the western suburbs where, despite registering a lower tally of 378 cases compared to a combined 482 cases within the top 7 LGAs by income, the former were issued with more than five times the volume of fines. This has subsequently attracted criticism that the NSW Police paid little regard to Western Sydney’s cultural differences.
Alva* has been calling Liverpool home for 12 years since moving to the suburb for high school. She describes the community as being particularly tight-knit. “It’s an incredible multicultural melting pot. Everyone is very accepting of everyone’s differences,” Alva says. “People have multi-generational families, so you will have grandmother[s] living in the same household as their children.”
“The approach [for managing COVID] used for the northern and eastern Suburbs has to be different from south west Sydney because they’re very culturally distinct. But that doesn’t mean that the approach has to be with increased law enforcement.”
Similarly, Doja notes that additional law enforcement in western Sydney fails to recognise the multi-generational character of the area. “A lot of the reason around [the] hate was attributed to qualities of western Sydney such as having big families,” she explains. “I think it’s probably being framed in a way that casts negative light on the cultural aspects of the area without really giving an explanation as to why or providing extra support because we have those cultural aspects to consider.”
Little effort made to communicate health restrictions
South-west Sydney residents are also frustrated that the state government has made little effort to adequately communicate the constantly changing and tightening public health restrictions. “Not everybody in the area is the most fluent in English or is always watching the 11am updates everyday,” Doja says. “There have also been undertones of prejudice towards [the area], so it’s not really conducive to people understanding what’s happening. “[Information] needs to be clear, they can’t just keep saying ‘common sense.’”
Alva believes that there needs to be greater communication between state and local governments. “The big thing is giving local people access locally to critical information they need to know,” she said. “It’s about making sure that the communication loop is a bit more localised in your LGA.” Ferkh adds that poor community communication is due to funding cuts to key media and multilingual news outlets such as the SBS. “We have a language barrier. And I think that is a fundamental issue with the underfunding of SBS, the underfunding of public broadcasters from the Federal Coalition.”
Financial support is ‘just not enough’
Beyond these issues, the failure to provide adequate financial support during the lockdown period is a key concern among south-west Sydney residents. “Right now, the support at the federal level is just not enough,” Ferkh says. “The economic support package needs to be raised to $750 from $600 because for most people, this current package only covers their rent. Having that extra $150 could go a long way in providing food to put on the table.” At the University of Sydney, the lack of welfare support inspired a campaign by the student council’s Welfare Action Group. Students demanded that the federal government increase its disaster payment scheme to $750 per week.
Despite their struggles, the proud people of western and south-west Sydney will continue to rise to the challenge. Alva and Doja say that they have a strong will to comply with rules and endure lockdown for the sake of their community. “Within our community you could say that people are interdependent. We can rely on one another.”
A COVID-Safe car and bicycle convoy for Workers’ Rights is set to happen on August 1 at 12PM.
* denotes a pseudonym used to protect the interviewee’s identity.
Resources for mental health support for students:
University of Sydney Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS)