Each time NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announces that more local government areas (LGAs) are joining the list of “areas of concern”, I think to myself, “Welcome to the bloody club.” It’s a club that – of course – no one wants to be part of, but here we are: restricted to a five-kilometre radius for exercise and shopping, wearing masks outdoors and not allowed to leave our areas unless it’s for an approved reason. After all, we’re all in this together, right?
Living in the Fairfield LGA since the Delta outbreak started, these latest restrictions are nothing but Groundhog Day, with memories of what pre-lockdown life use to be like fading fast. It’s been just over seven weeks since the initial restrictions were announced at the end of June, and a month since the NSW Government decided to come down harder on South Western Sydney, with additional health orders that Berejiklian claimed were some of toughest restrictions Australia had ever seen.
These restrictions have virtually dismantled some of Sydney’s most vibrant multicultural communities; my parents tell me they haven’t seen Cabramatta this quiet since they first moved to the suburb. That was nearly 40 years ago. Back then, though, the suburb looked very different: the population was less dense, the demographic was less ethnically diverse and retailers were bound to closing early on Saturdays or remaining closed all weekend.
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In some ways, the NSW Government’s latest Covid-19 lockdown rules have forced many parts of Sydney to revert to that former state. More than half of all the shops in my area have shuttered during the lockdown, including ones that are considered “essential”, such as restaurants, grocery stores and doctors surgeries. Even those store owners who were initially optimistic have now closed. Most owners and their staff are afraid to leave their homes for fear they’ll end up with the virus and their businesses will end up on the ever-growing list of close-contact venues. For others, there just aren’t enough customers coming through the door.
The streets are eerily deserted. It’s an unusual and stark scene for Cabramatta, a place that’s always lively with crowds no matter what time of day or week. Even during the first four days of Lunar New Year, when Cabra shuts down, the streets are never this silent. It’s a bit like the days when the suburb was notoriously known as Australia’s “heroin capital” and most shops would scramble to close before sunset.
Driving in on a good day, pre-Covid, you were lucky to find a car park on the first go. Cabramatta’s centre is usually banked up with traffic stuck in gridlock, often caused by double-parked cars, with drivers eyeing each other off like hawks for a free parking spot. But since lockdown, Cabramatta’s multistorey council car parks and its busiest streets, including the usually bustling John Street, lie completely vacant.
The only noises filling the void now are the occasional cars zooming by, the rustling of leaves in the wind, birds chirping and the slapping sounds of the low-flying helicopters that frequently circle the area. Sometimes it’s police on patrol, other times it’s media trying to capture the perfect aerial shot of the Covid-19 testing queues at Fairfield Showground that they can use for the next news bulletin.
Lone individuals scurry in and out to get their essential shopping done or to congregate – at safe distances – out the front of medical centres that are still open and pharmacies offering walk-in vaccinations. Most, however, have made themselves scarce – too reluctant to even go out for walks. Many stand in their front yard or balcony to feel the sun on their skin before quickly retreating inside their homes. This is in stark contrast to the scores of people captured on social media in other parts of Sydney, where beautiful, sunny days frequently draw them outdoors to gather at parks, beaches and outside of takeaway shops or cafes.
I wouldn’t, however, describe this stillness as peaceful. It’s far from it. Besides fear, there’s confusion, resentment, anger, frustration, impatience and weariness in the air. Part of that is the feeling that people in South Western Sydney are being treated like second-class citizens and scapegoats for government inertia and its failure to get a grip on the Delta variant. For a majority of residents here, my parents included, English is a foreign language, and constant rule changes and tough policing only further exacerbate this confusion and resentment.
Despite this, I couldn’t be prouder to be a “westie” right now. What makes this community unique is the heritage of the people who live here. They’re a resilient bunch, many having lived through civil wars and been forced to start new lives in a different country. So while a pandemic currently stands in their way, I don’t have any doubt that the people from my hood will be ready to pick up where they left off once they’re given the green light to go.
Aimee Chanthadavong is a Sydney writer who grew up in Cabramatta.