Monica Doumit: Dear Premier, it’s not that hard

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‘Essential businesses’ such as novelty stationery stores and sex shops have been allowed to remain open during the latest lockdown - but not churches where people bring their joys and sufferings to God. Photo: katrina.alana/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Novelty stationery stores and sex shops are allowed to stay open during the latest lockdown – but not churches where people bring their joys and sufferings to God. PHOTO: katrina.alana/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Are you sure there’s no whiff of prejudice in the lockdown enforcement?

I’m a proud first generation Australian. My dad and all my grandparents travelled to this country from Lebanon and settled in western Sydney, and our family has lived here ever since.

While we’re not in the three local government areas currently identified as being of concern for COVID community transmission, the demographics of my suburb are similar to those of the LGAs of concern.

We’ve been assured that the dispatch of 100 extra police – some of them mounted – into the suburbs of south-western Sydney was neither unprecedented nor motivated by racism, but an ordinary measure that had been deployed in other parts of the city during the pandemic.

Deputy Police Commissioner Mal Lanyon said that the police targeting of south-western Sydney was as the police had done “where other areas of concern have been identified.”

“Forgive my bluntness, but such police operations and media campaigns reveal a bias – conscious or unconscious – against those in western Sydney.”

I don’t remember media reports that mounted police were being sent to Waverley LGA, which has had more cases of community transmission as of the first weekend of the stricter lockdowns than Fairfield LGA, even though it holds only a third of Fairfield’s population. Nor do I remember them being sent to Randwick LGA, which had 40 per cent more cases of community transmission than Liverpool, despite having 100,000 fewer people.

The reasons given for the increased concern (and police presence) is that the migrant communities don’t really understand the health orders or the gravity of the pandemic, and they keep visiting their families despite being advised not to.

In addition to the police, we have seen somewhat patronising multi-lingual social media campaigns asking people to stay home.

Forgive my bluntness, but such police operations and media campaigns reveal a bias – conscious or unconscious – against those in western Sydney. It manifests in a perception that we are less intelligent, with an inferior health awareness and a lower rate of compliance with laws than our brethren in the northern, southern and eastern suburbs.

A nurse tests a patient for COVID-19 at Westmead Hospital in Sydney on International Nurses Day, May 12, 2020. PHOTO: CNS/Loren Elliott, Reuters

My experience over the last 18 months is that this same perception exists with our decision-makers when it comes to people of faith, which is why places of worship have been treated so disproportionately since the pandemic began (despite there being fewer cases of transmission in places of worship combined than from a single café in Bondi two weeks’ ago.)

The Government and NSW Health are wondering why their messaging doesn’t seem to be working in south-west Sydney, and they are calling on religious and community leaders to help get the message across.

I am pretty sure I know why the message isn’t translating (pardon the pun) in western Sydney. It’s not that we’re incapable of understanding the public advice; it’s that we perceive it to be disproportionately weighed against our most cherished values.

“Try telling a Lebanese grandmother that visiting her children or grandchildren could put her or them at risk of serious illness and hefty fines, but that a person going to buy sex toys was still COVID safe …”

Let me explain what I mean.

Family and faith are everything in our communities. We would gladly die for either and so if you want us to give them up, even for a few days, then you better have a very good reason.

But as people in the three south-western Sydney LGAs were told that in addition to their churches being closed, their families were no longer allowed to visit and they could only shop for essentials, the adult stores in those areas remained open for business. Open also were stores like Dusk, which sells scented candles and Typo, which sells novelty stationery.

Try telling a Lebanese grandmother that visiting her children or grandchildren could put her or them at risk of serious illness and hefty fines, but that a person going to buy sex toys was still COVID safe and acting within the bounds of the law.

She is going to ignore you not because she doesn’t understand; but because she thinks you think sex is more important than family.

Try telling her that she is allowed to walk to the local shops and buy a takeaway coffee, but that she can’t stop and say a prayer inside her local church because it’s unsafe.

It’s not because English is her second language that she tries to skirt the rules; it’s because she thinks it blasphemous to define takeaway coffee as essential and Church as non-essential.

“What those of us in western Sydney hear is that what we value most in life is completely dispensable, and we should be willing to sacrifice it unquestioningly on Government say so.”

Try telling her that she is allowed to go for a walk with her neighbour to get some exercise but isn’t allowed to sit socially-distanced on that neighbour’s verandah and have a cup of tea.

It’s not a language barrier that’s the problem; it’s that she doesn’t think exercise is any more important for mental and physical wellbeing than checking in on someone.

No doubt the health experts will say that the adult store, the café and the outdoor exercise are all less risky environments than the family home, a place of worship or a visit to a friend, but what those of us in western Sydney hear is that what we value most in life is completely dispensable, and we should be willing to sacrifice it unquestioningly on Government say so.

If NSW Health and the NSW Government want more compliance in western Sydney, then – respectfully – they need to come from a starting point that family and faith are the most essential things for us, even more than food and clothing, and make the rules with that in mind. A good starting point would not be leaving our churches closed and the sex shops open.

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