COVID-19 lockdown exposes feelings of 'two cities' emerging within Sydney, Q+A hears

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

In this tale of two cities emerging within Sydney during the COVID-19 lockdown, one group of people feels targeted while the other gets to go to the beach.

Canterbury Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour raised a perceived double standard in restrictions and policing on a Q+A episode which tackled the cracks appearing between Western Sydney and the rest of the city.

He highlighted the case of people who were arrested for attending an outdoor funeral, admittedly in breach of the 10-person limit, compared to those who were seen visiting beaches at the weekend.

“We saw the pictures of Bondi and Coogee and the eastern suburbs beaches, and I don’t begrudge anyone that lives close to the beach to be able to go there, but when we’re stuck at home and didn’t have any hours of recreation, it makes my community angry, frustrated,” Mr Asfour said.

“People [at the beach] weren’t wearing masks, weren’t social distancing. Yet, when someone in my community attends a funeral, wearing a mask, social distancing, they get arrested and taken by police.

“They were both [breaching] the health order. One gets arrested when they’re grieving. The other gets to sunbake. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr Asfour said other examples of the “two cities” narrative included that some tradesmen from the 12 LGAs, where 80 per cent of the workforce are essential workers servicing the rest of Greater Sydney, were losing contracts because it was perceived they were infected with COVID-19.

He said tradesmen in those areas were mandated to receive vaccinations before being able to return to work, but then found themselves on construction sites working alongside people from other parts of the city who do not face the same requirements.

“There’s different rules for different people. That irks my community and makes us angry,” he said.

Federal Labor MP Linda Burney, whose seat of Barton takes in some of the 12 local government areas (LGAs) of concern in Sydney, said there was a perception of there being “two cities” within Sydney.

“I’m hearing from people … there is an absolute feeling of two cities,” she said.

“One where you see people going to the beach. And [another] where you’ve got helicopters flying over you with loud speakers.”

John Lee, a foreign affairs expert with the United States Studies Centre, said a lack of transparency from leaders in explaining the reasoning behind the health advice or the assumptions behind the modelling was contributing to the anger felt by the communities.

“It’s led to poor policy decisions. When was the last time you heard any premier of any state admit they got something wrong, which clearly occasionally they do? They’re fallible. There is no real improvement or refinement of policies because there’s very few incentives to do so when you don’t have the transparency,” he said.

Federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who represents the eastern suburbs electorate of Wentworth, said the lockdown had been especially tough on those living within the 12 LGAs but said he did not think an “underclass” was emerging in society.

“I think this is certainly putting a lot of pressure on communities and understandably people are angry, resentful and frustrated about what’s going on. But I think we are on the way out of this. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m sure we’ll all consider ourselves Sydneysiders and Australians again.”

But what happens next?

Ms Burney said the big question would be how the city heals after the lockdown.

“How do you put it back together at the end of the tunnel? That’s the real challenge that’s going to lay ahead of people in this city,” she said.

Mariam Veiszadeh, an Australian lawyer and human rights advocate, said Sydney’s lockdown had sharpened the focus on existing “postcode privilege” in the city, and any exit plans needed to take this into account.

“This roadmap out has to be an inclusive roadmap and needs to take into account there are entrenched inequities across multiple communities, including the Indigenous community,” she said.

“And how do we ensure that we bring everyone on the journey?”

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