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Speech: The militarisation of public health

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 3 Aug 2021

Millions of people are in COVID lockdown this week; many of them are in my home state of New South Wales. Tens of thousands have lost their livelihoods without adequate support from the Morrison government. Marginalised communities are being overpoliced and maligned in south-west and Western Sydney while corporations, billionaires and the wealthiest keep adding to their bottom lines. These are the fault lines, inequalities and injustices that have been exposed and heightened during the last 18 months. Saying we are all in this together again and again doesn't make it true when so many are clearly being left behind and out in the cold.

Western Sydney, home to a large number of essential and frontline workers, migrants, refugees and First Nations people, is one of the most richly diverse areas of this country, and this is precisely why it has been targeted and stigmatised with police operations and a military presence. No other communities in the country have been treated this way during the COVID pandemic. The demonisation has been palpable in the way they have been spoken about and targeted by the police, when in fact these communities have shown up and have some of the highest rates of testing New South Wales has ever seen. We are also now seeing huge numbers of vaccinations in these areas, once the vaccine has been made available, and it has been happening despite the mixed and ever-changing messages on vaccines by the Prime Minister, who not only failed to acknowledge early on in the pandemic that vaccines would be the one way out of this crisis but told us it was not a race. It is a race, Prime Minister; it's the race of our lives.

When COVID spread to the south-west of Sydney in this outbreak, people had to wait up to six hours in line to get a COVID test because the New South Wales government failed to set up enough testing clinics. There weren't enough testing clinics, yet people still turned up to get tested so they could keep themselves and their communities safe. In early July, when vaccination, public health and community engagement should have been the priorities, the New South Wales government decided to send in the police. This was a terrible turn of events. Overpolicing any community, let alone marginalised communities, is a recipe for disaster, and now the military has descended on these communities, creating more fear and anxiety. People are already under immense financial stress and health stress, separated from their families overseas because of border closures which allow the rich, the famous, the well-connected, the Hillsong pastors and the far-Right trolls, but not ordinary people, to come in and leave.

Militarising public health makes zero sense and this is no accident. It is by design, to shift the focus away from the government's failures and onto multicultural communities. With a substantial uptick in police and military presence comes stigma. It would be a devastating result if multicultural communities ended up wearing the blame for this lockdown when, in reality, we are where we are because of Morrison's botched vaccine rollout. Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, from the University of Melbourne, told the ABC that there is clear inequality in how the police treat people in different areas and reminded us that a lot of essential workers live in south-west Sydney and are required to leave home to go to work.

The government has ordered people to stay home but refused to provide them with enough resources to stay healthy and economically secure. This puts particularly casual workers, losing shifts and work, and people on low incomes in a terrible position. How are they meant to choose between keeping themselves and their communities safe and paying the rent and putting dinner on the table? What a cruel, inhumane choice. Without sufficient support, proper information and vaccinations, millions will get left behind and the most marginalised in our community will be put into further poverty and debt and will suffer greater discrimination, anxiety and stress.


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