‘It’s a bit scary knowing he’s out there every day’: Life in the COVID hotspots

By Caitlin Fitzsimmons

Residents of Fairfield enjoy some sun during Sydney’s lockdown. Fairfield LGA is a hotspot for the spread of the Delta variant and residents here are under greater restrictions. Credit:Janie Barrett

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Two weeks ago, Susan Samana received the phone call every Sydneysider is dreading – her boss had COVID-19, and she was a close contact.

Samana’s first test came back negative. But that night, she descended into a “spiral of symptoms – the nose, the throat, coughing, the fever, the chills” – and another test the following day confirmed she was infected.

Samana was so sick she was barely able to move out of bed for the next three days – except she had to, because she has four-year-old twins and her husband is away.

A few days later, on Samana’s 37th birthday, she found out she had passed COVID-19 on to her daughter. Her son was diagnosed a few days later. Fortunately, she says her children are only mildly ill.

Samana lives in Ingleburn in the Campbelltown local government area, one of the hotspots for Sydney’s burgeoning Delta outbreak, and works in a customer service role at a bank a few suburbs away.

She says the reason the virus has taken off in south-west Sydney, while it was quelled relatively quickly in the eastern suburbs, is simple.

“People have to still go to work in those essential roles, like me – I had no choice to work from home because I’m a customer-facing role at the bank,” Samana says.

“If you, for example, work at Woolworths, you have to go in and stack the shelves, you have no choice. We have to stay employed, we have to pay our bills.”

Samana admits she feels “a little bit angry” she caught the virus when she was “doing all the right things” – wearing a mask, social distancing, washing her hands, getting groceries delivered, not visiting family, and only moving in a triangle between home, daycare and work.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said most transmission is occurring in workplaces and households. Samana is a typical example because she caught the disease at work and then passed it on to her household.

“Workplaces are a constant place where adults are taking the disease, passing it on to other workers and having it spread to other suburbs and we need to stop that,” Berejiklian said at one of the daily COVID-19 press conferences early last week.

The government has also called out extended-family gatherings in the multicultural melting pot of south-west and western Sydney.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard has suggested some ethnic communities might have a greater cultural need for family get-togethers and says the government faces a challenge communicating to people “who perhaps might have suffered at the hands of other governments”.

Police and ADF officers deliver groceries to people in isolation in the Fairfield LGA during Sydney’s lockdown.Credit:Janie Barrett

Renee Langdon, deputy principal at a primary school in the Campbelltown LGA, says she has noticed this wariness in her school community, where almost nine out of 10 families speak English as a foreign language.

Langdon says she has been phoning parents for welfare checks and to offer computers and internet dongles but if she can’t reach parents on the phone, she is sometimes obliged to notify police.

“I got a call yesterday from a parent who was very upset with me because I called in the police, because as part of their culture and where they’re from, they don’t have good relationships with police,” Langdon says. “We’re trying to offer support but until they pick up the phone and have that conversation, they don’t know that.”

Distrust in media is also high. When The Sun-Herald posted in Facebook groups looking for people to share their stories, many responses were sceptical.

One commenter replied: “Sorry I don’t talk to propagandists – real media only.”

Another said: “Why would anyone want to speak to a journalist from the newspaper … you people only push one agenda and it ain’t the truth.”

Boots on the ground

In the hotspot zones of south-west and western Sydney, there is a wide variety of lockdown experiences and differing opinions about how well everyone is complying with the restrictions and how well the government is communicating.

Mariam Veiszadeh, an Afghan-Australian writer and lawyer with a large social media following, says using “paternalistic language” in the press conferences will backfire and undermine the community outreach.

“There is a perception out there that the outbreak in the east was treated very differently to the outbreak in the west, and that does not help at all with bringing the community on a journey as to why it’s important to get out there and get vaccinated,” Veiszadeh says.

Mariam Veiszadeh, an Afghan-Australian writer and lawyer, is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Her point is echoed by Sahar Elsemary, 54, from Greenacre who says south-western Sydney is being blamed for the government’s failure to lock down the Bondi cluster properly.

“Saying we come from underprivileged countries and blaming us for spreading the virus is completely uncalled for,” says Elsemary, who is originally from Egypt. “I respect the government but sometimes they are overboard with their opinions like they treat us like we don’t have brains of our own to use.”

Views on the heavy police presence, now bolstered by soldiers from the Australian Defence Force, are divided.

Elsemary, for example, says the police are being harsh and treating the community like criminals, while some others welcome the enforcement effort because they are frustrated by people not following the rules.

For example, several people reported a lot of people were not wearing masks in shops and shopping centres, particularly young men, older people, and Muslim women wearing hijabs. (Veiszadeh says it is possible this is because of the difficulty in taking a mask on and off under a tight hijab).

Anthony Dinh, who owns Banh Cuon, a Vietnamese takeaway shop in Bankstown, says he is happy to see the police effort because too many people were not wearing a mask or congregating because they were bored.

“I’m a business and I don’t have the right to tell people what to do,” says Dinh. “Any day I see a soldier or police, I always put my hand up and say ‘thank you’ because we need them.”

Anthony Dinh with his mother, Kim Thanh, in their restaurant, Banh Cuon in Bankstown.Credit:Janie Barrett

Dinh, 43, needs to work to stay afloat but he is very worried about the virus and has only had one dose of the vaccine so far. He lives with his parents, who are both fully vaccinated, in nearby Yagoona and is not seeing any extended family.

Mandy Kamel, 32, from Panania says she is not fearful of the COVID-19 situation in the Bankstown area after having lived with a daily threat to her life in war-torn Beirut.

She is not fazed with the police and military presence in the area and is comfortable with the COVID-19 restrictions.

“It doesn’t bother me much. People are supposed to follow the rules and stay at home,” Kamel says.

Mandy Kamel says she is not fazed by the police enforcement action for the COVID-19 lockdown.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Tabrez Shakoor, 38, from Glenfield in the Campbelltown area, says his family comes from Fiji, where there have been several military coups in the past few decades.

Shakoor says his parents have a high degree of trust in the NSW government and know they are trying to take care of people, but people in the broader community feel hard done by.

“The whole fact that people can come in here to work but we can’t leave is just a massive kick in the guts,” Shakoor says. “It’s disheartening and you lose a lot of trust.”

Essential work

The Sun-Herald recently reported that workers in the most locked-down areas of Sydney have a high concentration of people working in face-to-face jobs including retail, construction, food services and accommodation.

Vanessa, 32, who requested her last name be withheld, can work from home but is worried about her partner, a bus driver, and her father, a courier, catching COVID-19 at work.

The family live in Wakeley near the Fairfield showground, on a property with one house for Vanessa and her partner and another for Vanessa’s parents and grandmother.

Vanessa, who is 29 weeks pregnant, exercising with her mum Eva in the Fairfield area.Credit:Janie Barrett

It is especially nerve-wracking because Vanessa is 29 weeks pregnant and not yet vaccinated – she has an appointment for her first jab next week.

“My partner started getting emails cancelling his shifts then all of a sudden his workplace had a COVID contact case so half the workforce went into isolation and he’s been relied on really heavily since then,” she says.

“It’s a bit scary, knowing that he’s out there every day, meeting people and walking past people, and you just don’t know [where the virus is].”

Elsemary lives with her husband and four children, aged 22, 21, 17 and 15. She is a manager at Taste Tours, a social enterprise that runs food tours in south-west and western Sydney. She is doing some work remotely but has lost income during lockdown.

She is “so scared” about her son, the youngest child, working at Hungry Jack’s throughout lockdown and too young to be eligible for any vaccine, but with so many of his siblings stood down from work, the family needs the money.

“We used to think it was only the old or the people with medical conditions that would be vulnerable to the virus but now it’s targeting young people as well,” Elsemary says. “I’m always checking him to see if he is coughing and sneezing, if he is all right.”

Family gatherings

While households are not meant to be intermingling during lockdown, NSW Health consistently reports that transmission is still occurring in extended-family get-togethers.

For example, when at least 50 grieving family members gathered together in Pendle Hill in July, it directly resulted in more than 45 cases of COVID-19.

“Even a close relative like a parent or a sister who lives in a different household is at risk of getting the virus or giving you the virus,” Berejiklian said at one of the daily press conferences last week.

However, if people are socialising with their families on the sly, they are not admitting it to The Sun-Herald.

Langdon grew up in the Camden area and has 24 family members nearby, including six siblings.

“We are freakishly close but we are not getting together, even though we really want to,” Langdon says.

Kamel, who works for the Australian Red Cross helping to reunite families separated by war or conflict, has two young children and a younger brother and sister who also live in Sydney. She says it is difficult not being able to share a meal with her brother and sister since the lockdown started.

Manpreet Singh, 43, from Schofields in the Blacktown LGA, says he understands the drive for family get-togethers – “it’s the culture” – but it was important to follow the rules.

Manpreet Singh with his family in lockdown in Schofields, Sydney.Credit:Janie Barrett

“I know you are an attached family, a big family, but think about if your loved one died from that situation, what’s the reason you got together?” he says.

As an electrician, Singh has lost work but he says he is more concerned about the virus than lockdown, having lost his uncle to COVID-19 back in India.

Shakoor lives alone and sees his girlfriend Natasha, which is allowed under the lockdown rules. He is also supporting his parents by dropping off groceries, medication and other essentials but says they are not social visits.

Meanwhile, Lisa, who requested her last name be withheld, has moved in with her parents in Wakeley rather than stay living alone during a lockdown and face declining mental health.

Vaccination

With case numbers stubbornly high and rising despite the lockdown, Berejiklian is banking on vaccination as the way out. Her goal is 6 million jabs by the end of August.

But Shakoor, a cabinet maker by trade whose bread and butter is installing kitchens, is frustrated that he is fully vaccinated, yet losing work to unvaccinated tradies from other parts of Sydney.

He says many of his peers refuse to get vaccinated because “they don’t know what’s in it” and feel they are fit and would fare OK with the virus.

“I was speaking to one of my mates today, and he was against it a couple of weeks ago, but today saying that he’s just going to go get it,” he says. “But my business partner doesn’t want to get it so it’s a mixed bag.”

Figures from Operation COVID Shield revealed last week that only 14 per cent of people aged over 15 in south-west Sydney are fully vaccinated, compared with more than a quarter in North Sydney.

Everyone interviewed by The Sun-Herald spoke about high levels of misinformation circulating in the community.

Pharmacist Quinn On in Cabramatta has sounded the alarm over vaccine misinformation on Chinese-owned social media channel WeChat.

Lisa, 30, is fully vaccinated because of a heart condition, as are her parents and grandmother, but she is concerned about the influence from vaccine-sceptical community leaders.

The family lives opposite the Assyrian Orthodox Christian Good Shepherd Church where Bishop H.G. Mar Mari Emmanuel recently delivered a sermon railing against the lockdown as “an absolute mass slavery” that was treating humans like animals and raising doubts about the vaccine.

Kamel says she is looking forward to getting her first Pfizer vaccination shot later this month. A Maronite Christian, she and her husband attend an Orthodox church in Punchbowl where most people she knows are happy to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, many people in the hotspot areas remain concerned about the safety and efficacy of AstraZeneca.

For example, Elsemary says most people she knows are wary of AstraZeneca and she would not be happy for her children to take it.

“You hear about the deaths every now and then and [last week] it was a 34-year-old woman who died because of AstraZeneca,” she says.

Leidy Castro Meneses, 36, from Yagoona, says the anti-vaccine message is powerful because it has a grain of truth – as well as the rare clotting risks of AstraZeneca, it is factually correct that vaccines such as Pfizer don’t have full FDA approval in the United States but are in the last phase of trials, testing it on the population.

Castro Meneses says she and her husband were vaccinated early after someone shared a booking link on Facebook.“We went to Liverpool hospital and got the Pfizer vaccine and it turned out later that this was illegal, that people shouldn’t share their personal links,” she says. “I feel bad about it but I didn’t realise – I just filled out the form and I didn’t lie about my age or anything.”

Leidy Castro Meneses with her daughter, Sofia, in the lobby of their Yagoona apartment building. She is relieved to be vaccinated now that the virus is raging in her local area.Credit:Janie Barrett

She is relieved to be vaccinated now that the virus is raging in her local area and also because her husband went back to their native Colombia for two months after his father died from COVID-19.

Overall, she thinks the communication from the NSW government has been good.

“Honestly, I think that they have done everything right,” she says. “This is an unprecedented time, and people critique the premier and ask why we didn’t go into lockdown earlier, but it’s difficult to predict.”

Meanwhile, Samana is booked in to have the Pfizer jab at the end of September. At the time of booking, there was no access to AstraZeneca for her age group and the decision to open it up more widely has come too late for her.

Samana plans to keep that appointment in the hope that a double dose of immunity means she never has to live through COVID-19 again.

“You can get COVID again and if I have the vaccination, even if it gives me half the symptoms that I’ve just gone through, I would be very thankful because it was so scary,” she says. “There were times I thought I would have to call an ambulance to pick me up and my two kids with me.”

With Anna Patty

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