The deployment of troops to enforce Sydney’s lockdown could alienate the community and fuel vaccine hesitancy, particularly in the hard-hit western suburbs where many Indigenous Australians and migrants and refugees live, community groups and residents are warning.
Three hundred defence personnel are preparing to be deployed on Sydney’s streets on Monday after New South Wales police made a formal request for their help. They’ll undergo training at the weekend before joining police on the streets as they enforce a sixth week of lockdown.
The NSW Aboriginal Legal Service said it was “disturbing” that the government was using the military and giving police additional powers over communities with a high Indigenous population, who are already overpoliced.
“There is a significant Aboriginal community in western and south-west Sydney,” said its chief executive, Karly Warner. “Our community is targeted by police day in and day out – this will only get worse if police are given additional powers and backed up by army troops.
“This situation calls for the skills held by social workers and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, not armed forces.”
Sydney is home to one of Australia’s biggest and fastest-growing Indigenous populations. According to the 2016 census, about one in every nine Indigenous Australians lives in Sydney – with the biggest numbers in the western suburbs.
In the Blacktown city council area, there were nearly 12,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – 3.4 per cent of the population.
“No matter where we live or what we do for a living, we all want to keep our families and communities safe, healthy and Covid-free,” Warner said.
“But choosing to use force and fear by giving police additional powers and rolling in army troops to communities is disturbing. This will only create greater fear and uncertainty among our families and friends.
“We need culturally accessible information, income support, health and emotional support services to enable people to stay at home safely.”
The eight local government areas in western Sydney under the toughest restrictions, with stricter limits on movement, exercise, masks and shopping, are also some of the most diverse suburbs in the country.
Will, a resident in Bankstown, one of the eight LGAs, said the military deployment was just a “continuation” of the heavy-handed approach to enforcement in the region.
“It’s a sign of a continuation of the militarised and policed response to this entire outbreak," Egli ha detto. “It continues the way western Sydney is policed, the way movement and recreation is policed, but at the same time it amplifies it and marginalises people. It just makes it worse …
“Their deployment is such a statement about the nature of the problem, and the problem is us, the people who live in western Sydney. They’re saying the problem isn’t the vaccine rollout or their failure to support people, the problem is our compliance.”
He said the announcement and the optics of soldiers in these suburbs made it feel like an “invasion”.
“It looks like an invasion, it looks like an occupation, is that the message they want to send? That western Sydney is occupied? Because that’s the message they’re sending.”
Will said he was “exhausted” by the response to the outbreak so far by authorities, and that the deployment would only add credence to anti-vaccination sentiments.
“I can’t think of anything that will lend more credence to conspiracy theories than this," Egli ha detto. “I can’t think of anything – they’ve been talking about martial law for so long, and now it’s confirmed.”
This was a point echoed by Bahram Mia, a casework and community development worker at the Community Migrant Resource Centre in Parramatta, another of the eight LGAs under tough restrictions.
Mia said the decision to bring in soldiers was only going to further alienate those who may have had doubts about vaccination.
“These decisions by the government, it further alienates the community, and it doesn’t help with their health messaging either, because a lot of the community are already reticent of taking the jab, because of a lot of their sentiment is based on a distrust of the government.”
Mia works with many refugees and migrants, and said the decision might “trigger” people with previous experiences of militaries.
“A lot of people in these LGAs come from countries like Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, and for them it can be quite triggering as well. Seeing ADF uniforms and the like, it’s something they would have seen at home and something they associate with violence.
“I don’t think it’s a well-thought out move, but it speaks to their desperation.”
Another resident from Bankstown, who asked not to be named, said people were going to be frightened to see soldiers on the street: “If the military knocks on doors, people are going to be scared and angry.
“It absolutely will not have the desired effect. You can’t have the desired effect on people who’ve been ignored by the government for 20, 30 anni. The government is trying to help them – you think they’re going to believe that any more?"
He said residents in western Sydney felt as though they were being treated like “uneducated, barbaric western suburbs heathens”.
“When you look at the response to outbreaks in the northern beaches or eastern suburbs, those communities were approached like they were reasonable and civil.
“But when it comes to us, we’re treated like uneducated, barbaric western suburbs heathens, that need to feel the full brute strength of the law.”
The NSW police minister, David Elliott, said the military had helped in previous emergencies and that their “unique” skills were necessary.
“The army’s unique skills and training have combined many times with those of our police officers to serve the people of NSW in times of crisis, such as the floods and severe bushfires we’ve experienced in recent years," Egli ha detto.