‘Imprisoned’: south-west Sydney on harsher lockdown and the fight to stop Covid

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As harsher restrictions descend on Auburn, a suburb in the Cumberland local government area, essential workers say they are already depressed and struggling with the effects of the lockdown.

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced strict new rules for two LGAs, Cumberland and Blacktown, after the state recorded another 136 new locally acquired cases on Friday.

Just like in Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool, residents will not be allowed to leave their area for work unless they are an “authorised worker”. It also means essential workers must undergo testing every three days to continue working.

Berejiklian stressed that workers in the newly restricted LGAs should get vaccinated as soon as they can, but conceded the government needed to prioritise young essential workers in south-west Sydney.

“We are redoubling our efforts in distributing vaccines in south-west Sydney,” she said.

“We need first doses in the arms of those people of those affected areas, especially those providing critical work. The group of workers that keep the society going is this group of workers in the 20 to 49-year-old age group in south-western Sydney.”

Asma, a worker at a pharmacy in Auburn, said she was finally getting her first dose in two weeks, but that it had been a frustrating process.

“I had to wait, I’m not sure why,” she said. “I booked it three months ago, there just isn’t enough doses. It’s been annoying, I think the government could have done a better job with the rollout.”

If they want people to listen ... they should do better with the payments. It’s not enough.

Asma

She said people felt “imprisoned” by the restrictions, but they were also resigned to their necessity.

“People are depressed, most people are depressed because they can’t see family members. They feel imprisoned.

“If they want people to listen, to sit at home and not go to work, they should do better with the payments. It’s not enough.”

Asma said western Sydney residents felt targeted by authorities.

“How she [Berejiklian] has dealt with western Sydney has been a bit racist, because if they want us to be in lockdown, she should treat everyone the same,” she said. “Not just us. They’re always blaming western Sydney for everything that’s going wrong. If anything goes wrong, it’s always on us.”

Mohammed Arsalan, a worker at New Star Kebabs, a traditional Turkish eatery popular with locals, told the Guardian he had never seen Auburn so quiet.

“It has affected us so much, the business is down about 70%, a lot of customers are staying home, so we’re struggling,” he said. “Our hours have been cut, so our wages have dropped by half. It’s really hard to feed the family, and of course when you have a kid, it’s always tense, I’m struggling a lot.”

Arsalan said the new restrictions were tough on him and his family, but he understood the need for them.

“It’s really hard, but we all have to do our duties and follow the new rules. We are dealing with it, what more can we do?”

Arsalan said he felt the only way out of the lockdown was to improve the rates of vaccination, but he had been frustrated by the slow rollout.

“That’s the only way, we have to get vaccinated to deal with the outbreak,” he said.

“I am waiting for my turn, when I can, I will straight away get vaccinated. This is annoying, the system has to get it out as soon as possible, we have to get it very quickly, so we don’t have to deal with these things in the future.”

Zohra Patol, who owns the Star Sydney Supermarket on Auburn Road, said she was afraid to see how the new, harsher restrictions would affect her business and community.

“We are in a very bad condition, I’m also scared,” she said. “I am suffering in this outbreak, because everywhere is locked down, and we are losing our customers, they are saying they can’t get vaccinated, and are afraid to come.”

Patol said things had been so slow she had had to offload boxes of fruit and vegetables on the cheap, to avoid watching them rot.

“Our vegetables are rotting because there are no customers, no one is coming,” she said.

“We are losing our profits, watching our vegetables get ruined. We brought some boxes of cherries for $17 and now we are selling them for $10. Because it’s rotting, we’re just losing money.”

Karar runs the Sahar Supermarket and said he asks all of his customers to mask up and check-in because it was their way of saving lives.

“I try my best to follow the rules and protect my customers,” he said. “We try our best, we sanitise the shop, we ask people to sign in, we sanitise our hands. We tell people, if they love their family, they need to check-in.”

Karar said he supports his family in Pakistan, after arriving in Australia six years ago, and many people in his community were frustrated by the new restrictions – and that they were especially afraid they wouldn’t be able to send money to their families overseas.

“Most of my friends and customers have gone one month at home, they don’t have enough money to survive,” he said. “Most of them are angry, most of us have migrated from poor countries and need to support our families back home. If there are no jobs, it means there is no money to send, they are dependent on us.”

At a tobacconist up the road, KK, who asked not to be identified, said he had barely been able to pay rent, and that the new restrictions would only make things worse.

“The shop is very slow, we are operating at under 50%,” he said.

“We used to be a bit better, but now we barely even make the rent, let alone pay workers. I’ve had to pay so much out of my own pocket. It’s been so hard. These new restrictions are going to make things worse, the entire street is at a standstill, there are no customers. I normally get 40 to 50 customers a day, and now I barely get 10.”

KK and his family immigrated from Iraq, and he said he’d spent the past month in Auburn, only moving between his home and his shop.

“It’s true, we have had many cases from around here, from our community,” he said. “The restrictions are understandable, they are trying to get on top of this outbreak. Most people I see are following the rules. There is nothing we can do with our hands, we can only ask God to help us now.”

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