By Jordan Baker and Matt Wade

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There are lockdowns, and then there are lockdowns. For residents of Sydney’s east, north and south, where restrictions are not so tough, children tired out by Zoom lessons or adults keen to escape their lounge rooms have been able to stay within 10 kilometres of home and go on a coastal walk, hike in a national park, or paddle along a harbour beach. Many of them have a backyard, a room in which they can find solitude, and an internet connection that can support a different streaming channel for each member of the family.

Of the five council areas with the lowest median household incomes in Greater Sydney, four are now classified “areas of concern” and are under the most harsh and economically damaging lockdown restrictions.Credit:Kate Geraghty

It’s a different story in Campsie, the south-west Sydney suburb that last week became the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. There, three generations live in two-bedroom apartments, children play in driveways, and there’s no such thing as a quiet place to work or study. The five-kilometre exercise radius, which has now been extended to Greater Sydney as of tomorrow, allows a masked walk to Wiley Park, a greenish patch surrounded by arterial roads which, in recent weeks, has been circled by police helicopters telling everyone to go home.

Politicians might say, “we’re all in this together”, but it doesn’t feel that way to residents of the hotspot suburbs. Even in normal times, they are the city’s most disadvantaged; they are poorer, their jobs are more vulnerable, and they’re more reliant on government support. Their families are bigger, their homes often smaller, their suburbs even have fewer trees. And during this pandemic, they are more likely to get sick from COVID-19, less likely to be vaccinated, and often ill-equipped to seek help.

Yet, almost every day, they’re hectored by politicians who they feel have little understanding of their communities. A 17-year-old student from Mt Druitt, who The Sun-Herald has chosen not to name, is trying to do his HSC lessons remotely while supervising his kindergarten brother and acting as a translator for his Egyptian-born parents. “It’s funny how the government is saying we’re all in the same boat,” he says. “We’re in the same storm, but we’re in different boats. Some are in a dinghy and others in a yacht.”

Sydney’s division is not new. Well before COVID-19 “there were lots of job opportunities and higher paying jobs in suburbs to the east, while the west did not have the same opportunities,” says Terry Rawnsley, a specialist in demography and urban economics at KPMG. “The pandemic has opened up that fault line.”

The economic structures on either side of that fault line are quite different. A significant proportion of employees in Sydney’s north and east are employed in knowledge-based sectors and easily switched to working from home when restrictions were imposed. But that has not been possible for many workers in the west and south-west, where a high number are employed in jobs not suited to remote work, such as construction, logistics, manufacturing, retail and hospitality.

Of the five council areas with the lowest median household incomes in Greater Sydney at the last census, four are now classified “areas of concern” and are under the most stringent and economically damaging lockdown restrictions. Those four disadvantaged LGAs – Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland and Campbelltown – have had well over 3000 locally acquired COVID-19 cases in the past four weeks.

The contrast with Sydney’s five wealthiest LGAs is striking. Two of them – Mosman and Hunters Hill – had no locally acquired COVID-19 cases during the past four weeks. Among the other three in that highest-income group – Woollahra, Ku-ring-gai and Lane Cove – the combined tally of locally acquired cases in that period was 27.

Teacher, Priyanka Bromhead of Blacktown says “the lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness, the lack of consultation has been unsurprising, but startling.”Credit:Janie Barrett

Elfa Moraitakis, chief executive of charity SydWest Multicultural Services, says those living in Sydney’s most restricted neighbourhoods are acutely aware of the city’s east-west divide. “It is discussed all the time,” she says. “People feel discriminated against; people feel that because they come from a low socio-economic background they are less important … they feel it is unfair and people are getting increasingly worried and angry about it.”

Moraitakis says demand for the humanitarian and social services provided by her organisation has spiked by at least 30 per cent since lockdown began. “Families are really struggling financially,” she says. “We have seen a big increase in requests for assistance, especially for [supermarket] vouchers as well as our domestic violence-related services. People have not got money to shop for their children.”

Elfa Moraitakis from SydWest Multicultural Services, says demand for the humanitarian and social services provided by her organisation has spiked by at least 30 per cent since lockdown began.Credit:Janie Barrett

Blacktown resident Emmanuel Kei is one of those relying on vouchers from SydWest Multicultural Services to purchase food during lockdown. He lost his job last year when his employer closed down amid the pandemic’s disruptions.

“With the situation now it’s really hard to find a new job,” he says. “I was running out of money.”

Kei has also been hunting for a place to rent – a task made especially difficult by the stringent restrictions in Sydney’s west. He feels lucky to have found a place (with the assistance of SydWest Multicultural Services) after a long stint in temporary accommodation.

“Because of the lockdown you couldn’t do rental inspections and things like that,” says Kei, who migrated from South Sudan 15 years ago. “It has been a pretty stressful time.”

Education equity is a problem, too. In pockets of the advantaged north and east, where COVID-19 case numbers are low, some primary schools – which are not, technically, closed – are seeing up to 80 students a day. In the west and south-west, where students can be years behind on certain academic measures and the virus is more virulent, families are heeding more strongly worded messages from schools to keep children home.

But in lower-income areas, there is less money to spend on internet or devices, so remote learning is harder. Some schools are loaning laptops but others are not because they don’t expect to get them back. Some children have been given a school device only for their parent or older sibling to commandeer it. After seven weeks of remote learning in 2020, the average NSW student fell between two and four months behind. “Our modelling indicated that the learning gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged could grow three times faster than normal [during school closures],” says Jordana Hunter from the Grattan Institute. “We have every reason to be concerned that the impact of the pandemic on children will be strongly affected by the degree of disadvantage they face in their life already.”

But schools are not just for learning. Some kids rely on their school for emotional support, health care and a decent meal. “Usually, every minute of my day is spent dealing with issues faced by kids and their families,” says one principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media. “Right now, we’re not hearing from them.”

“A lot of families living under very small roofs – it’s like a pressure cooker.”

One primary school teacher in Sydney’s south-west says many of her students live in small apartments with multiple siblings, and rarely get out to play even in normal times. She doesn’t know how they’re faring because her calls are going unanswered. “Nobody is handing anything in,” she says. “I hear nothing.”

Judi Owen, the centre manager of Barnardos Children’s Family Centre in Penrith, says mental health is becoming a significant problem. “We’ve had a vast increase in referrals,” she says. “A lot of families living under very small roofs – it’s like a pressure cooker. There’s no way for people to give each other space and calm down. You can’t even go for a walk in some places without being stopped by police and asked what you’re doing.”

The mental health scars will be profound, says Professor Ian Hickie, the co-director of health and policy at The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, and the burden has not been equally shared. “People who are well-off, with resources, with homes, with space, with access to the outside world, beaches, parks, good home internet, separate bedrooms, separate spaces, still [find lockdown] destabilising,” he says. “But they have a greater capacity to cope. Those in multi-generational homes, small spaces, bad internet connections, you’ve got people trying to work, trying to study. For families who traditionally cope by pooling resources, it’s really difficult.”

Intensifying the pain is the need to suspend community networks that usually nourish multicultural families, says Professor Hickie. “Those who see themselves as individually resilient, they’re doing fine. It’s a very Anglo-Saxon, particular view of individual resilience; ‘we can cope’. You hear this from the prime minister down. You need to be empowering and working with the community, not lecturing and blaming them. People cope not as individuals; people cope as social groups.”

Emmanuel Kei was homeless after losing his job due to the pandemic. SydWest Multicultural Services helped him find his new apartment in Blacktown. Credit:Janie Barrett

At 11am press conferences, politicians regularly scold people for protracting the lockdown because they fail to do the right thing. They talk about low rates of vaccination in certain areas. But residents of those areas say those politicians and their senior bureaucrats – most of whom come from different worlds – are not asking the advice of people who know the community best.

When Health Minister Brad Hazzard – whose electorate covers wealthy areas of the northern beaches – casually said, “young people have their own [car] licences anyway” when discussing transport for year 12 to a mass vaccination hub, principals of disadvantaged schools collectively groaned. Some kids couldn’t afford public transport.

There are myriad reasons for vaccine hesitancy and reluctance to seek help, and transport is just one of them. Priyanka Bromhead, a teacher who lives in the Blacktown region, says many migrants had unpleasant experiences with doctors before they came to Australia. Much of the translated material is not updated regularly, or written well. The use of the army hasn’t helped, either. “You’ve got families intergenerational that have been traumatised by conflict, only to be told the ADF is coming in to look after their well-being,” she says. “The lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness, the lack of consultation has been unsurprising, but startling.”

Jihad Dib, the member for Lakemba, believes the answer lies in empowering leaders already trusted by the communities. The Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) has set up a vaccination hub. “You know how hard it was to get?” says Dib. “Decisions are being made about the community without really consulting the community.”

Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Health Minister Brad Hazzard, Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant and Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys after a COVID-19 briefing. Lockdown communities say there needs to be more consultation.Credit:James Brickwood

Sophie Cotsis, the member for Canterbury, says her community, which includes Campsie, is incredibly diverse; there are Mongolians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Koreans, Chinese. They all have particular GPs and pharmacists they trust. “The (LMA) did really well,” she says. “It changed the view [of vaccinations]. We’re trying to get a similar thing in Belmore at the Greek Church, the archbishop is supporting vaccination. If we can get localised vax hubs, with familiar doctors and nurses, there will be more confidence in the community.”

The government is under intense pressure to roll out vaccinations quickly, but it must also do it carefully. Good experiences with vaccination and testing will generate positive messages through communities. “They’ll tell their neighbours, ‘it’s OK’,” says Cotsis. “But if they’ve had a bad experiences, the conspiracy theorists will say, ‘see’? It’s crucial we get it right because it could go either way.”

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