Peter Khalil warns of Covid's unequal impact after Blacktown apartment lockdown

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Getty
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Picture: Getty

As restrictions thaw across most of Australia, NSW is settling in for a grim winter.

The state confirmed another 172 cases on Tuesday, its biggest single-day increase since the outbreak began, as the virus continued to seep through Sydney's strict lockdown.

And authorities are facing a balancing act: containing the highly-infectious Delta strain, while avoiding slapping draconian measures on already marginalised groups.

The task is complicated by the fact the most disadvantaged are the most likely to work multiple jobs or in frontline services, and live in high-density settings where the virus flourishes.

Labor MP Peter Khalil, who grew up in Melbourne social housing, warned they had already borne the brunt of the pandemic.

"The evidence is pretty clear cut: when COVID-19 sweeps through ... it tends to hit hardest in migrant communities, especially economically disadvantaged communities," he said.

The sight of a Blacktown social housing block under police guard harked back to Melbourne last July, when nine public housing towers were plunged into lockdown with no notice.

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Claims of unfair treatment were heightened when residents, the majority Muslim, were offered pork in their daily food allowance.

Residents complained of a lack of information in their native language, while others were forced to wait over a week for supervised time outdoors.

NSW Health's Jeremy McAnulty insisted on Tuesday he was "very concerned" over the welfare of residents, who will receive daily checks.

But although timing in Sydney is different - Melbourne was open when its towers went into lockdown - Mr Khalil said lessons could be learned from Victoria's experience.

"Get the cultural nuance. Understand these communities," he said.

"It's being able to engage with [community leaders] to get the information through, and understanding what's culturally appropriate for those communities [when] providing support."

Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass found stereotyping residents as non-compliant and criminal created a "theatre of policing" in social housing, which would be "unimaginable" in a luxury apartment block.

Victoria locked down nine public housing towers at the beginning of its second-wave. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Victoria locked down nine public housing towers at the beginning of its second-wave. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"That's the problem I had: the presumption of non-compliance as an automatic starting point," Mr Khalil said.

He said people who lived in housing commissions "tend to be rendered invisible", but the stigma attached to his upbringing "flashed by my eyes" when police tape went up in 2020.

"In that situation, the invisible was rendered visible in a way which was very negative. [It was] kind of finger pointing, either patronising or demonising," he said.

NSW Police have faced claims of inconsistent enforcement. Picture: Geoff Jones

NSW Police have faced claims of inconsistent enforcement. Picture: Geoff Jones

"You're basically saying: we don't trust these people, we think they're going to do a runner from their own home. But what are they going to do, live under a park bench for two weeks?"

NSW Police has also come under fire for a heavier presence in south-western Sydney, where the virus has grown roots, than the Eastern Suburbs, the outbreak's epicentre.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has insisted police "will move where the virus is moving", but Mr Khalil said many residents Bondi had been moving around with impunity.

"Bad behaviour is bad behaviour ... We saw a lot of examples of people in much higher socio-economic postcodes who weren't doing the right thing," he said.

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This story Delta strain has unequal impact first appeared on The Canberra Times.