We need a public health response based on trust and communication


To stop the spread of COVID-19 across Greater Sydney and New South Wales we need clear, culturally appropriate communication, strong economic, health and social supports, and community relationships based on trust. By contrast, government rhetoric casts our efforts as a ‘war’ with an ever-increasing reliance on compliance and control measures by NSW Police and the Australian Defence Force. This approach risks alienating marginalised communities and cultivates fear and mistrust. By Community Legal Centres NSW.

Over the last month, the NSW Government has expanded police powers and – reluctantly this week – enlisted the Australian Defence force to enforce public health orders in South-West and Western Sydney. These communities are among the most diverse in NSW, home to Australia’s fastest growing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, as well as to many migrants and refugees. Due to the ongoing impacts of colonisation, civil war, or state persecution in their countries of origin, many people in these communities are understandably mistrustful of uniformed and armed government authorities. 

Community Legal Centres NSW believes a public health response grounded in care and wellbeing – not fear and coercion – will strengthen our capacity to respond together as a community and build mutual trust, cooperation, and communication.  

We’d like to see State and Federal Governments prioritise economic support and secure housing for all, so that people are able to safely stay home. Economic support should be expanded to all people on Centrelink payments, whether they have lost work or not. The high rates of infections in workplaces also underscore the need for governments to introduce paid leave and protections for all workers who need to get tested, self-isolate and receive vaccinations. 

Clear, consistent and culturally appropriate communication is also critical to an effective response. People want to do the right thing, to keep their families and communities safe and healthy. But the health orders are complicated and changing constantly. Work by Redfern Legal Centre has identified that in just over 15 months the New South Wales public health orders for gathering have changed over thirty times. 

We need clear, multilingual and culturally accessible resources that communicate consistent health advice and information, rather than leaving the translation of critical resources in the hands of volunteers. 

And the messages need to be delivered by health professionals, community workers and community leaders, rather than enforced door to door by the police or army. Given the orders’ complexity, a compliance-based approach risks cultivating fear, alienation, and uncertainty – particularly for communities that already mistrust the police and army.  

Targeting people with high fines – particularly in South West and Western Sydney – is not the road out of this pandemic. We’re concerned at the increase in on-the-spot fines for failure to wear or carry a mask from $200 to $500, given the $1,000 penalties already in place for breaching public health orders. Research suggests that higher fines generally aren't effective at encouraging desired behaviour.  

We are also concerned by evidence that suggests existing biases are being replicated in COVID policing. In COVID-related matters from March to June 2020, the NSW Police subjected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to higher rates of searches and arrests

A Victorian inquiry also found that people living in lower socio-economic areas were twice as likely to receive a fine from police for COVID-19 breaches. The same inquiry found that the heavily policed lockdown of public housing towers left residents feeling ‘scared, powerless and criminalised.’ 

Policing with force and fear is counterproductive to protecting public health. We urge all levels of government to respect, trust and listen compassionately to communities across the state. Critically, all people need additional support to stay safe, healthy, and stop the spread. 

Have you received a COVID fine? Redfern Legal Centre offers a free legal advice service about appeal and payment options for all people in NSW who have been issued with a COVID fine. Visit https://rlc.org.au/ or call LawAccess NSW on 1300 888 529.