Fairfield, a beacon for cultural diversity, celebrates the bland. The city recently secured National Trust recognition of a 170-year-old southern live oak planted by former politician, surgeon and convict William Bland. It’s a reminder that the region has a history and an identity greater than its current COVID-19 “hot spot” label.
Fairfield deserves to be seen as more than the site of a coronavirus flare-up, more than a dormitory of “key” or “essential” workers, and much more than a “clamp out” problem for contact tracers. When NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard says, “It is critical … for the community in south-west Sydney to understand” how their actions “may well determine the future of this virus in our community”, it begs the question: What exactly is “our” community?
Almost 68 per cent of Fairfield’s residents speak a language other than English at home – close to double the rate of Greater Sydney as a whole. Manufacturing is the largest industry. It’s also a place where rates of volunteering and the “unpaid” provision of care are significantly higher than non-western Sydney regions of Greater Sydney.
This is a community of multilingual people, who make things, generously give up their time and help others. How many of “our” communities can make that claim?
Governments, state and federal, would do well to avoid “othering” language and instead look to the inherent assets of people in areas such as Fairfield. They would also be wise to remember the extraordinary resilience of a community forged more recently by migrants and refugees.
Many of Fairfield’s residents have directly experienced war, deprivation and persecution. They know – better than most – how to live through crisis, through lockdown and emergency. And, broadly, they comply. The snaking lines of vehicles queuing for hours at testing stations in recent days attest to that. Fairfield residents hold the line, literally, even when the system lets them down, subjecting them to reported six-hour waits for a test, and – worse – up to several months’ delay on vaccine availability.
Western Sydney is used to waiting. While inroads are being made in areas such as education access and qualifications, the region remains disadvantaged, compared with the rest of Greater Sydney, on every major socioeconomic indicator, despite longstanding political commitments to redress the imbalance.
Fundamentally, governments that are intent on making persistent and urgent demands of a particular community must be prepared to meet its demands. That is a basic expectation that inhabits every 11am NSW government news conference, yet on many counts remains unresolved.
When it comes to expectations, residents of Fairfield, south-west Sydney and further afield would rightly anticipate clear communication from authorities when confronting a crisis. They look to have been poorly served.
We saw an admission of similar in Victoria last year when the state’s chief health officer noted public health messaging may not have “properly engaged with linguistically diverse communities about COVID-19″. This concern was backed by a study that found one in five clients of a community health not-for-profit “did not understand COVID-19 information, or had not received it at all”.
Regrettably, these lessons appear not to have been heeded. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s urging that affected communities “look at the health orders” is being undermined by challenges like those experienced in Victoria. Vietnamese Community Australia federal president Kate Hoang told The Daily Telegraph non-English speaking communities were doing their “best to follow the rules”, but “information lag” was the problem, pointing to delays in translating and disseminating government rule changes.
On testing, vaccination and, it seems, communication – all critical elements of the public health response – delay and confusion are letting down communities that, quite clearly, are willing to comply. Equally, we have a backdrop where confidence in systems is called into question by apparent exceptions to the rules whereby select private school students can access vaccinations ahead of others. Hazzard’s “move on” response to media questioning of that scandal jags with the Premier’s message that south-west Sydney must follow the rules.
Many residents of Fairfield will have had plenty of time to consider these issues, waiting patiently and dutifully in line at testing clinics. And many of them are, on the one hand, being regaled as “essential workers” and, on the other, chastised for turning up to work, as though – in the face of profound income disparities and the rise of insecure work – it is a choice.
All of this is occurring while the definition of who is and who isn’t “essential” remains unclear. On Thursday morning, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet did not discount florists as essential when questioned on ABC radio. One might reasonably argue just how essential government messaging is proving when it comes to achieving clarity on that front.
As we work through a critical juncture of Sydney’s response to the pandemic, we’re learning more about the city’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Those lessons are crystalised in Fairfield. This region, and many in the city’s west like it, are home to the overwhelming majority of Sydney’s workers doing the jobs politicians arbitrarily deem essential. Arguably, most of those workers would not class themselves that way. They are part of a community. They are caring, connected and engaged people. They are “essential” to their families. Essential to each other.
Some might consider that bland. I can’t think of a better example of community. And I can’t imagine why any government wouldn’t jump at the chance to learn from the Fairfield community about how it can collaboratively improve its response to what is shaping, for all of us, to be an extended lockdown. And perhaps not the last.
The following opinion piece was authored by Dr Andy Marks, Director of the Centre for Western Sydney.