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To improve pandemic control, listen to the community leaders of western and south west Sydney

As COVID outbreaks continue to spread, communities have much to teach governments, reports journalist Cate Carrigan in the second of a series of articles from south west Sydney, where she lives.


Cate Carrigan writes:

More effective and inclusive pandemic messaging is needed to counter the uncertainty, financial stress, fear and anger being experienced by multicultural communities in western and south west Sydney who feel they are being blamed for the continuing COVID-19 outbreak.

That is the advice from community workers and health professionals interviewed by Croakey, who say positive messaging about hope is also vital amidst ongoing lockdown uncertainty.

Although all Greater Sydney is now confined to a five-kilometre exercise regime, 12 LGAs of concern in west and south west Sydney have the added restrictions of mandatory mask wearing outside, carrying identification, three-day testing for workers travelling outside their council areas and extra police patrols.

Atem Atem, president of the NSW Refugee Communities Advocacy Network (RCAN), is critical of what he sees as “us and them” COVID messaging by the NSW Government that’s sparked fear and anger within the diverse communities living in the Sydney suburbs with tighter lockdown restrictions.

The feeling wasn’t helped by Health Minister Brad Hazzard’s comments last week that “there are other communities and people from other backgrounds who don’t seem to think that it is necessary to comply with the law”.

A member of the South-Sudanese community in the south west suburb of Fairfield, Atem told Croakey the narrative that the “spread is happening within family groups, kinship networks and in extended family” and the portrayal of these links as a problem is puzzling.

The point is you do not vilify or make the way people live sound criminal, like it’s the problem. Because it’s not. It is actually the strength that these people have.”

Atem says those relationships must be recognised as “critical and healthy and good”, and then used to convey the message that staying at home will protect the people in these networks – to ensure your mum, dad, uncles and cousins are safe from this threat.

“Another crackdown”

Associate Professor Ben Harris-Roxas, a lecturer at the School of Population Health at the University of NSW, who lives at Granville in Sydney’s west, says the city’s south west and west is “a region that has a history of being portrayed as a problem – crime, drugs, gangs – and the COVID response has been received as another crackdown”.

“The police helicopter is over my house several times a day,” he says. “There’s a very heavy police presence, but it’s not seen, and it doesn’t feel like, they’re here to help.”

On the streets of Belmore in south west Sydney. Photo by Cate Carrigan

Harris-Roxas, an expert in health impact assessment, says the narrative that insecure work and larger households are driving transmission is also a coded way of implying that it’s different cultural groups who are driving the transmission.

But a lot of people living here work in aged care, healthcare, and manufacturing – jobs that expose them to the virus and can’t be done from home, he says.

“The thing that gives me hope is that if you look at the numbers, they really peaked in Fairfield a month ago and have come down. This is because of the huge efforts by community groups there,” says Harris-Roxas.

The Assyrian, Lebanese, Sudanese and Syrian communities are providing material assistance and information to their networks, using Zoom and social media, he says.

The value of these community ties has been evident in the strong response to the vaccine clinic set up by the Lebanese Muslim Association at Lakemba in south west Sydney.

Clinic organiser Ahmad Malas says his organisation faced a lot of community pushback when it opened the pop-up vaccine clinic in Lakemba, with people distrustful of governments and demanding Pfizer due to concerns over AstraZeneca.

“People felt singled out by the heavy-handed approach of the NSW Government and police that has created a bit more hesitation,” he says, adding that government messaging has got better over time.

Even with the challenges, the clinic – which is community-led and offering easy access – has been a great success in turning around attitudes to vaccination, administering 700 doses in the first week, over a thousand in the second and continuing to grow, with more pop-ups clinics planned.

Such community initiatives, coupled with the work of local GP and respiratory clinics and the state vaccination hubs, have seen first dose vaccination rates in west and south west Sydney climb to over 40 percent, and continuing to increase.

Partnerships critical

Both Malas and Atem say co-design and co-partnering with community organisations from early on is critical is responding to crisis like the current COVID-19 outbreak.

“We don’t want measures to be reactionary. We really want to unite on this journey and there are a lot of considerations for community organisations and multicultural communities that need to be taken into account,” says Malas.

Like many others, they also want a message of hope, that people will get out of the pandemic in the end.

Malas stresses the importance of offering hope during what’s been a “bleak time”; something to motivate and encourage people to have extra strength to get through this.

Charishma Kaliyanda

Western Sydney Councillor and youth mental health worker Charishma Kaliyanda believes the NSW Government should have capitalised on the success of the Lakemba vaccine clinic by reaching out to other community organisations willing to follow suit, including three Hindu temples in west and south west Sydney.

At Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation (TAC) at Airds in south west Sydney, CEO Darryl Wright and his team have worked at staying ahead of the current outbreak from the outset.

Wright, a Dhungutti man, says the corporation moved quickly to protect its Elders and vulnerable community members, imposing lockdown restrictions four days before they became official.

“When we did it, they were happy. We talk to them twice a week and deliver fruit and vegetables and other things, and they have video-conferencing with their doctors.”

TAC has also been vaccinating with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, including non-Aboriginal people, such as local teachers, and rates have been high in comparison to other suburbs in the west and south west.

Wright says people were hesitant and scared – particularly those with chronic illness – but online Q and A sessions with doctors where everyone was encouraged to air their concerns – helped ease those fears.

Wright and other Elders led vaccinations, putting pictures on social media after receiving the jab, something that reassured and encouraged community members.

Photo supplied by Tharawal AMS

TAC has a good relationship with NSW Health – talking daily and following all the guidelines – and Wright urges the Government to reach out to multicultural communities in their languages and utilise local government contacts to help get the message across.

For Carmen Lazar, program manager at the Assyrian Resource Centre in Fairfield, the response from all levels of government has been good.

She says they have been quick to provide information in Assyrian, which the ARC has then uploaded on social media, shared with religious leaders and talked about on community and SBS specialist radio services.

The ARC has worked closed with local Assyrian-speaking doctors. An information session to the community in July – given in English but translated into Assyrian – sparked an uptick in vaccinations.

Another session will be held on August 21, in partnership with the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).

Lazar says there was initial concern about the deployment of the military and police without prior consultation, with community members confused and wondering, “what have we done?”

“It brought back memories for them from their home countries of intimidation by the government and the police – that was like a flashback for them.”

Mental health concerns

Meanwhile, the crisis is taking a growing toll on the mental health of all those in lockdown, but even more so for communities of west and south west Sydney – where families are often bigger, homes smaller and there are more people in insecure, lower-paid jobs or in essential work difficult to do from home.

Psychiatrist Dr Angelo Virgona, who’s based in the south west suburb of Campbelltown, has seen a noticeable rise in patients seeking help, with people feeling the impact of social isolation, and uncertainty.

The chair of the NSW Branch of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists RANZCP, Virgona told Croakey (see our previous story) there is increased complexity and acuity in presentations, both in the public and private sector.

While telehealth services – which have been extended until at least the end of 2021 – have been important in the maintenance of clinical services delivery during this second wave in NSW – the lack of face-to-face is impacting some patients.

Child psychiatric colleagues are being “hammered” with referrals and requests for treatment for young people from late primary school age right through high school and a dramatic increase in calls to services such as Kids Helpline and Lifeline.

Virgona says children are social beings and are increasingly suffering from being isolated from their peers and networks and usual daily structure.

“Colleagues in the public sector are reporting increased emergency department presentations and admissions of young people are up significantly compared with last year.”

Youth mental health worker Charishma Kaliyanda knows that many young people who are very stressed, particularly those sitting the HSC, with the rates of Year 12’s tapping into services much higher than normal.

Last year the main demand came after lockdown eased, when young people were readjusting to an easing of restrictions.

“That was the tipping point affecting their health and wellbeing” and we are going to need to bolster resources to cater for an increase in demand.

RCAN president Atem Atem has seen the rise in mental health issues in the refugee community. “People are feeling left by themselves, that no-one is looking after them. They can’t go to work, and they need to go to work.”

Given it’s a community that is very social, connected and collectivist in approach, the lack of face-to-face contact has been difficult, he says.

There are also challenges around addiction, large families living in congested housing with no space to work or do schoolwork and the stress of extra police and military presence of the streets, especially people who’ve escaped civil war.

“Someone was saying to me that they are not going to pick up the phone because it might be the police and they are afraid to talk to them.”

Community action

As communities throughout Sydney continue to live in lockdown, the close multicultural networks that have felt stigmatised by the health messaging, are busily working to keep their members supported and safe.

Charishma Kaliyanda says many people are seeking to contribute within their local communities, with organisations putting together hampers for people who have lost income and others asking about ways to contribute, be that through money, goods or time.

“They are providing the basics – shampoo, condition, pasta – and they’ve seen the demand for those things go through the roof.

“That nature (within our communities) of really caring for neighbours and being concerned about the others in the community that are really struggling is a real strength that can be drawn upon,” she says.

Carmen Lazar, the program manager at the Assyrian Resource Centre (ARC) in Fairfield, says her staff, volunteers and religious leaders have been reaching out to the vulnerable amongst the 7,000-strong community.

“We have been checking up on their well-being and if they are fully aware of the benefits of vaccinations, keeping social distance and not going out,” she says.

The ARC also helps arrange vaccination and food drop-offs if necessary.

Turbans4Australia, a Sikh community charity, is also providing support for affected communities in western and south west Sydney and is seeing a big demand for basic items, rental assistance and vouchers.

Founder Amar Singh told Croakey News there’s a big demand for groceries and personal care items, with the organisation distributing 400 hampers a week.

“We had a 70-year-old woman come in and pick up a hamper for her 79-year-old next door neighbour who had been living on cheese and baked beans,” he says.

“The need is absolutely huge”, with people suffering due to the uncertainty of lockdown. For many, financial assistance is not available, or being delayed – in the case of small business operators.

Singh points to his own business, saying he is still waiting for the first lockdown payment.

Streetscape in Campsie, south west Sydney. Photo by Cate Carrigan

Belmore butcher Nick Spyrou, who owns G and G Meat Market, is finding the restrictions tough: “Ninety percent of our customers come from outside the lockdown LGAs, so we have suffered a great deal.”

Spyrou is concerned about increasing mental illness and suicide. “A lot of it is happening and nothing is being reported,” he says.

“It’s terrible, especially for the kids. When you get an opportunity on the weekend to take your kids or your grandkids out and take them to the park, they don’t understand what’s going on.

“Then you have a police helicopter come overhead and say ‘leave, go home’ – where are we living, seriously?”

Atem Atem wants extra government assistance to ensure people will stay at home, saying for most in the African communities they need to go to work and can’t do it from home.

He questions whether the $750 a week Federal Government COVID payment is enough for people living in Sydney.

“Instead of sending the police and the army out, how do you ensure that people have no reason to go out, if you want them to stay in?

“Having the police on the street doesn’t help the situation. People will still go out if they have to survive, even if it means breaking orders.”

Lessons for the future

Going forward, there’s a united call for governments to work more closely with communities from the get-go: partnering, co-designing and ensuring people are brought on board from the start in response to similar public health emergencies.

Liverpool Councillor Charishma Kaliyanda believes tapping into strong community links via cultural, interest and religious groups is key to an effective response to the pandemic.

Kaliyanda wants the NSW Government to work more effectively with local government to tap into the ‘deep roots’ they have within the local community.

Such an approach was successful last year where the homeless were housed within  48 hours as a result of collaboration between the council, not-for-profits, the state government and other organisations.

Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation CEO Darryl Wright echoes calls for communities to be brought into the conversation straight away; his message is the need for communities to “look after each other”.

Atem Atem stresses the approach must be about partnership: government partnering with communities, community leaders, and community representatives.

He points to the army and military being brought in with no consultation, resulting in fear and confusion, with community being notified too late.

Associate Professor Ben Harris-Roxas says governments need to be aware of the complexities when dealing with populations with histories of trauma and poor treatment by governments, both in Australia and overseas.

People who witnessed Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in Iraq and those suspicious the CIA’s involvement in vaccination programs in Pakistan have fears they want addressed, he says.

A lot of the vaccination messaging is quite patronising in tone, assuming that people know nothing but they have legitimate concerns that they want answered.

The RANZCP’s Dr Angelo Virgona agrees with the view that messaging needs to be hopeful, that “this thing is going to come to an end”.

Also read: Shocking stories from the frontlines drive calls for innovative mental health solutions


Update on 24 August

Even tighter restrictions were introduced for the 12 LGAs of concern from August 23, including a 9pm-5am curfew, a one hour a day exercise limit, and click-and-collect at a range of retail outlets

These are in addition to a requirement to carry ID and the heightened police and ADF presence in the areas. (The rule for 3-day testing for LGA residents working outside the hotspots has been dropped in favour of rapid antigen testing at workplaces or proof of at least one does of vaccine. )


For help

https://www.lifeline.org.au/

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

https://kidshelpline.com.au/

https://thiswayup.org.au/

https://mindspot.org.au/


Croakey acknowledges and thanks donors to our public interest journalism funding pool for supporting this article.

See Croakey’s archive of stories about trauma.

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