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Sydney’s broad highway out of lockdown must carry us all

Stigma surrounding diverse, vulnerable communities in South Sydney during Covid-19 lockdowns paralleled that seen in southwest and western Sydney.

Comparisons were made with Melbourne’s public housing towers lockdowns in July 2020, which the Victorian Ombudsman found breached Victoria’s human rights laws.

Over-policing was alleged in Camperdown public housing and the Redfern Legal Centre said it was overwhelmed with requests for help from people who insisted they had been wrongly issued with fines by police for allegedly breaching Covid health orders.

To many observers and, especially for those living in certain LGAs, multicultural minorities were to be scapegoated for rising infection numbers while other Sydney residents could interpret the restrictions as they pleased.

So it was welcome news last month when Covid lockdown restrictions were eased to put the city under a uniform set of rules.

The important decision came shortly after an inquiry into the NSW government’s handling of the pandemic’s “local government areas of concern” was told of the anger and despair caused by Sydney’s disparity in lockdown approaches.

For several months it had been a much-reported “tale of two cities”.

Residents of Sydney’s east, north and south, where restrictions were not so tough, could go on a coastal walk, hike in a national park, or paddle along a harbour beach. Many had a backyard and an internet connection that could support a different streaming channel for each member of the family.

Meanwhile in west and southwest Sydney, home to the majority of the city’s essential workers, who could not comfortably work from home, three generations were living in two-bedroom apartments, children played in driveways, and digital devices were shared.

Jobs were hit hard, small businesses closed, and disaster payments missed many.

Heavy policing, choppers and curfews in the west have been contrasted with relative normality in the affluent east.

Police in the west were “just doing their job enforcing public health orders” when confronting people for watching a relative’s funeral from inside a car.

But people in the lockdown suburbs with little opportunity for outdoor exercise were tormented by TV news reports of people relaxing on the beach, where police had a much more laissez-faire attitude to enforcing even the mildest of public health orders.

The social, mental and economic anguish of western Sydney communities has been keenly felt by Settlement Services International and its member organisations because the majority of the 12 local government areas under the harshest lockdown restrictions were recognised as “hubs of multiculturalism and home to many people from non-English speaking backgrounds”.

Randa Kattan, CEO of the Arab Council of Australia told the pandemic response inquiry, “We have been made to feel like criminals in our own homes.”

She added, significantly, that as restrictions are lifted “the road out must be a broad highway that can carry all of us, not just the lucky few”

Earlier last month two colleagues of our CEO Violet Roumeliotis on the University of Sydney’s Open Society, Common Purpose Taskforce, Tim Soutphommasane and Marc Stears, wrote how Sydney and Melbourne were witnessing the normalisation of emergency – one marked by the militarisation of the pandemic response, the over-policing of our most vulnerable communities, and the “alarming over-reach of government power”.

“This pandemic has proven corrosive to democratic society in more ways than one. Inequalities have widened. Protectionism has infected our political culture. We’re seeing a shift away from an internationalised, multicultural Australia — and an erosion of rights and liberties. Yet right now, progressive politics is morphing into parochial conservatism, speaking the language of fear and not the language of hope.”

Instead of “building back better”, we had “Fortress Australia”, where restrictions on people’s freedom wasn’t just tolerable but had become normal. Human rights and multiculturalism were jettisoned.

Scott Stephens, interviewing Tim Soutphommasane on ABC Radio National, said, “This has given us an alibi for sacrificing fundamental democratic commitments, such as the way we treat one another with honour, integrity, decency, respect, refusing to engage in categorical forms of discrimination and stereotyping …

“The ease with which we have been willing to humiliate fellow citizens is a cause for moral and democratic concern.”

Two of the Principles for Reopening Australia, the Interim findings from the Open Society, Common Purpose taskforce summit on August 23, were

  • Australia needs a more proportionate public conversation about the risks and burdens of Covid-19, in order to build the psychological runway required for reopening the country.
  • The design of public responses to the pandemic must be informed by diverse perspectives, in particular those communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

We should not underestimate how difficult it will be to repair our divided city when we do see some kind of return to normalcy.

As Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue Chairman Chris Brown has said, “If we don’t come out of the pandemic smarter, richer, cleaner, fairer than we went in, then what a way to dishonour those who suffered though it.”

If we are to avoid a permanent fraying of our social fabric, if we want to emerge as the kind of country we want to be, we must, as we were demanding during the first wave of this pandemic, “build back better”.

We all need to find ourselves travelling together on that “broad highway”.


Stephen Webb is Corporate Affairs Manager at Settlement Services International.


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