Racist policing won’t solve a public health crisis

Police have been deployed en masse to South West Sydney.
Police have been deployed en masse to South West Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

The aggressive police operation to “combat” the COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney’s South West is yet another example of politicians’ racist, anti-working class and punitive handling of the pandemic.

Instead of deploying more health workers, the NSW government has put the onus on individuals to do “the right thing” while authorising an aggressive police operation (called “Operation: Better Late Than Never”).

It follows an inhumane pattern. The Victorian Labor government, in July 2020, put 3000 people living in public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington under a hard lockdown, enforced by armed police.

The federal government, in May, placed a ban on Australians returning home during India’s catastrophic  second wave.

Now, as Sydney faces an outbreak of the Delta variant (and with only 9% of NSW vaccinated), the south west — home to large numbers of predominantly lower income migrants and refugees — is being demonised.

Since colonisation began, political elites have used urban and rural geographical boundaries to separate the white ruling class from First Nations peoples, non-white migrants, refugees and the working class.

Police have long been used to enforce these boundaries, punishing any transgressors.

South West Sydney exemplifies how geography is used to perpetuate class and race inequalities.

The Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool local government areas (LGA), set apart from the inner city, are not only home to lower socioeconomic groups, they are some of the most culturally and linguistically diverse.

They also contain a higher proportion of essential workers, precarious workers and gig economy workers than other parts of the state.

According to the 2016 Census, 64% of South West households spoke a language other than English at home, including: Vietnamese 11.8%; Arabic 8.9%; Assyrian Neo-Aramaic 4.2%; Spanish 2.8%; and Cantonese 2.7%.

Nearly 70% had both parents born overseas and in Fairfield, this figure was 78.5%.

Moreover, the South Western Sydney Local Health District reports that in 2017, nearly two thirds of humanitarian entrants and refugees arriving in NSW were living in South West Sydney and almost half of those were in Fairfield.

Citing rising infections in early July, Gladys Berejiklian announced a special operation and sent in 100 police officers, including mounted police, to patrol Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool LGAs.

Police inspected 87 businesses, issuing 51 warnings and giving out eight Penalty Infringement Fines on the first day. By July 10, they had issued 67 fines of $200.

Although ministers met with some community and cultural leaders about the police operation, residents and community leaders said the consultation was inadequate and the operation was disproportionate. Western Sydney residents said they felt “scapegoated”.

A racist double standard is clearly at play: the predominantly white, richer suburbs of the Northern Beaches, Avalon and Bondi did not receive the same punitive treatment when infection outbreaks happened. Although the police was present during their strict lockdowns, it was smaller and less aggressive.

Social media posts have compared people in Bondi wearing masks while waiting for coffee to people in South West Sydney who have been fined for going to the shops for essentials.

The easterners could go shopping for “whatever they like”, whereas those in the south west were searched and fined for buying “non-essential goods” at shopping centres. Residents have described how police, aside from checking IDS, were also checking for any warrants, back fines and undertaking drug searches.

As human rights lawyer Lydia Shelly argued, even before the pandemic, residents of South West Sydney lived “with health inequalities and disproportionate policing”.

The stay at home directive was impossible for many living in the South West because many are essential workers, or non-essential workers who have to work due to the precarious nature of their employment.

This has been made worse by the government’s failure to close non-essential retail outlets, outline what “essential work” is, or provide paid pandemic leave.

Economic inequality and unequal access to affordable housing means that those living in wealthy suburbs find it easier to self-isolate.

The problem is both an economic and cultural issue: many culturally and linguistically diverse households commonly house more than three generations of family members under one roof.

As NSW Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said of the government’s approach, “Over-policing multicultural communities is a recipe for disaster”.

Not until two and half weeks into what looks to be a month at least of lock-down have the NSW and federal governments come up with some support packages.

The NSW government should provide paid pandemic leave. Importantly, too it should deploy health workers to provide information about COVID-19 in language, as well as visit homes, communities, schools and shopping centres.

While a public backlash has forced the government to apologise for “unintended” heavy handedness, sending in the police is never going to be the solution to a health crisis.

[Markela Panegyres is a member of the Socialist Alliance and is running in the Inner West Council elections.]