Policing Public Health

A person walks in the distance inside Central Station in Sydney. Two COVID posters say: 1 "help protect staff," and 2) "returning from overseas?"

Without warning, on 3 July 2020, the Victorian Government placed 3,000 people living in nine social housing towers into a police-enforced lockdown. They aimed to contain the spread of COVID-19 infection by targeting disadvantaged migrants who were in a dependent relationship with the state (social housing tenants live in buildings owned by the Government). Ultimately, this racial targeting did not work. The entire state of Victoria was still placed into lockdown, which lasted almost four months.

The Melbourne example shows police-enforced segregation of multicultural communities is an ineffective public health model. It is therefore profoundly concerning that such recent history is currently being repeated in Sydney almost exactly one year later.

Announced suddenly on 30 July 2021, police and the military have been deployed into eight multicultural suburbs in South West and Western Sydney, to enforce lockdown through door-to-door visits. Military personnel are not mandated to be vaccinated. This show of state force was not used in previous outbreaks involving white, middle class people in the Northern Beaches, or at the start of the present lockdown, in Bondi.

Heavily policing public health in places where Aboriginal people, migrants and other working class people live sends a damaging message to those communities. There are potential health risks with this plan, including to mental health and safety.

Let’s reflect on some of the lessons from Melbourne, and then explore how racist ableism is operating in the current “hard lockdown” of select multicultural suburbs in Sydney.

Ableism is the discrimination of disabled people, based on the belief that able-bodied people (people without disability) are superior, and the taken-for-granted assumptions that able-bodied experiences are “natural,” “normal” and universal. Racist ableism describes how ableism intersects with racial discrimination (unfair treatment and lack of opportunities, due to ascribed racial markers such as skin colour or other perceived physical features, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, or immigrant status). Learn more in: “Lockdown, Healthcare and Racist Ableism”

Lessons from Victoria, July 2020

The Victorian Parliament Inquiry found that policing of COVID matters increased existing inequity in Melbourne. A critical race theory approach shows these patterns are racialised.

The Victorian Parliament Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic found that, rather than sending in police, “a health-based approach during the lockdown would have been more appropriate” (p. 189). Healthcare workers and service providers noted that police “impeded” and “obstructed” their ability to deliver food, medicine and healthcare (p. 189). As a result of police, nine towers residents were left feeling “scared, powerless and criminalised” (p.190). More generally, multicultural communities reported that health responses throughout the pandemic were inadequate (p.44).

Similarly, an investigation by the Victorian Ombudsman found the policed approach to lockdown in the nine towers was a violation of human rights.

The Inquiry heard that, from the establishment of COVID penalties on 17 September 2020, to 16 December 2020, almost 40,000 COVID-19 fines had been issued n Victoria. Fines increased when COVID-19 infections and restrictions were highest, and dropped when cases and restrictions were lowest (pp. 262-263).

Additionally, twice as many fines were handed out in local government areas with the greatest socioeconomic disadvantage. The highest proportion of total fines were issued in Greater Dandenong (1,837 fines, or 5.62% of total fines) and Brimbank (1,503 fines, or 4.59%) (pp. 264-266). Not coincidentally, these areas have high migrant populations. Greater Dandenong has a population 64% overseas-born, mostly from Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. Brimbank has a population 55% overseas-born, primarily from Vietnam, India, and the Philippines. Brimbank was one of the five local councils with the most COVID-19 cases by 1 December 2020, and is of the 10 most disadvantaged councils in Victoria. It also had a higher percentage of insecure work (p.130).

Non-English speaking migrants are among the most disadvantaged groups. They are disproportionately employed in “essential services,” including aged care and healthcare, and so they have no choice but to go to work during the pandemic. They are already overpoliced. As a result, they receive the highest COVID fines.

By increasing policing in Sydney, and not heeding the lessons from Victoria, we are set to reproduce the same racial and health inequalities.

Health inequality in Sydney, July 2021

Seemingly overnight, at the request of Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, 300 military personnel have been deployed to enforce the COVID-19 lockdown in metropolitan Sydney. It came with the same swift, harsh and punitive timing as the Melbourne lockdown.

The Sydney operation is focused on eight multicultural suburbs, who are already under “hard lockdown.” I’ve previously shown that the first five suburbs put on elevated restrictions have 50% to 69% migrant populations from non-English-speaking origin. Of the three new suburbs put on hard lockdown, two have higher than average migrant populations (Parramatta and Georges River). Campbelltown has a higher than average Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The table below shows selected characteristics of the eight Sydney local areas in hard lockdown, in comparison to Bondi and the rest of New South Wales (NSW).

Three of these local areas have lower than average median incomes (Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, and Liverpool), though this does not capture the impact of precarious employment. Six of the eight suburbs in hard lock down have a higher than average disabled population (exceptions are Georges River and Parramatta). Disabled people are a priority group vulnerable to COVID risk. Two of these regions have higher than average rate of “essential workers” (Canterbury-Bankstown and Campbelltown). These vulnerable groups need culturally appropriate healthcare, not guns and fines.

Given that officials continue to emphasise that workplaces are the primary place of infection, and that these local areas supply a big group of essential workers, policing individuals is unlikely to address unsafe working conditions.

All eight suburbs under hard lockdown have above average COVID-19 test rates, with Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool twice the state average, and Fairfield 3.5 times the average. While this partly reflects mandatory testing for essential workers who need to leave their local area for work (“surveillance testing”), it still shows these multicultural communities are complying with the Public Health Order. This is not the message we hear daily from police and officials, who emphasise exceptional cases of deviance among multicultural communities.

In comparison, Bondi (where the first case in this outbreak originates), did not get military and police doorknocks, even at the peak of infection when cases were higher than other outbreaks. Bondi currently has a substantially lower number of COVID-positive cases now, but that wasn’t the case early on. Bondi has a high overseas-born population (55%), who are predominantly English-speaking (8% of Bondi residents were born in England; this is more than twice the rate of the next biggest overseas birthplaces, Brazil and South Africa). Bondi has 2.5 times fewer disabled residents than the rest of NSW. Residents have a weekly income that is $689 higher than the median, and a lower rate of essential workers. Race and socioeconomics has protected Bondi residents from a military onslaught.

Bondi and the other eight suburbs have a lower than average number of people aged over 70 years (a COVID priority group).

Table 1: Local Government Areas with high locally acquired cases since Bondi cluster began

LGAs key sites of infection in current outbreakCurrent no. COVID-19 cases (b)No. of tests (b)Test rate per 1,000 (b)Population (c) % born overseas (c) Top 3 overseas birthplace (c) % Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (c) % aged over 70yrs (c) % need help due to disability (d)Median weekly household income (c) Essential workers (c, o)
Fairfield (a)944179,910850198,81759Vietnam, Iraq, Cambodia0.79.28.5 (e) $1,2228.5
Canterbury-Bankstown (a)605181,992482346,30250Lebanon, Vietnam, China (n) (f)$1,2987.5
Liverpool (a)273107,35047227,08469Iraq, India, Fiji0.98.26.2 (g)$1,08913.1
Parramatta (a)8855,83221725,79876India, China, Philippines (n) (h)$1,7399.3
Campbelltown (a)8851,523301157,00638India, New Zealand, Philippines3.87.25.9 (i)$1,45913.2
Georges River (a)9148,510304146,84150China, Nepal, Hong Kong (SAR of China)0.510.94.9 (j)$1,6549.5
Bondi35 (l)21191 (l)285 (l)10,04555England, Brazil, South Africa0.38.32.2 (k)  $2,175 7.4
Total NSW3,0681,959,5692397,480,22834.5China, England, India (n)2.911.15.4 (l)$1,48610.1
Sources: NSW Health, ABS 2016 Census, Profile.ID.com.au – full list below

Criminalising COVID

Racial minorities are already subject to over-policing in Sydney, and have been disproportionately penalised during the pandemic.

For example, legal researcher, Vicki Sentas and colleagues, find that, from 15 March to 15 to June 2020, 9% of people stopped for COVID-related matters in New South Wales (NSW) were Aboriginal people (even though they make up 2.9% of the population in NSW). Aboriginal people also made up 10% of people searched, and 15% of arrests for COVID matters. These patterns, as well as those from the nine towers in Melbourne, suggests that using police and military to liaise with community is in opposition to positive public health outcomes.

Learn more: Listen to Vicki Sentas discuss her other research on stop and search patterns and the pandemic in our Race in Society episode, “Policing the Quarantine.”

Criminalising healthcare

The police response targeting non-English speaking migrants and Aboriginal communities tells these groups that the state perceives them to be inherently criminal. The reality is that the eight communities under hard lockdown supply a large portion of essential workers who cannot work from home. The state has acknowledged that the economy relies on these workers. So, while we cannot afford to have these workers stop supplying labour, we still put them in workplace environments that carry increased risk of COVID infection. When individuals cannot avoid infection under these impossible circumstances, their sickness is punished.

Racist ableism leads to elevated fear of healthcare, to the point where four infected people in New South Wales have died at home without medical help. In one recent case, a 60 year-old migrant man was scared to call for an ambulance, for fear getting in trouble after learning he was COVID-19 positive. He died at home. His entire family was infected, but they had also avoided medical care until his death.

On the one hand, public officials say: “Our government… is not like the government that you have lived under overseas. We are here to support you.” But, on the other hand, we fine poor people severely, we put non-English speaking migrants into hard lockdown, demonise them in the media for not following the rules (even as other suburbs are flagrantly flouting lockdown), and then send the military to their homes.

Racial discrimination coupled with ableist approaches to the pandemic (keep going to work, but we will punish you if you get sick) are compounding disadvantage amongst the most vulnerable.


In June 2021, the Federal Government announced that the military had been put in charge of the vaccination rollout, even though this is the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s office. On 30 July 2021, the NSW Police Commissioner announced military personnel will accompany local police on door knocks to ensure people who have tested positive to infection are self-isolating at home. Upon questioning by journalists, the Commissioner admits military are not mandated to be vaccinated (police doing the door knocks are mandated to be vaccinated). Using unvaccinated military personnel during home visits increases health risks to vulnerable communities.

This approach sets up a racist double standard on vaccination, where state forces who are not vaccinated are being used to enforce the Public Health Order, even when they are not following vaccination advice. Defence Forces are, after all, a priority group who were given early access to vaccination.

The military and police were not used to door knock in affluent, Anglo-Australian majority suburbs during the Northern Beaches outbreak in December 2020, nor at the beginning of the current outbreak in Bondi.

More broadly, low vaccination leaves vulnerable communities at risk. The vaccination program, which is led by the Federal Government, is not going as planned.

By the end of July 2021, Australia has the second lowest vaccination rate among OECD nations (in 37th place), with only 15% of Australians fully vaccinated (and almost 18% only one dose). In New South Wales, only 39% of people over 70 years are vaccinated, 30% of disabled people in group homes, and 20% of Aboriginal people have received one vaccine dose (only 7% fully vaccinated).

Learn more: Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially announced a target of having 20 million adults fully vaccinated by October 2021. In January 2021, priority groups were frontline healthcare, quarantine, aged care and disability workers, as well as residential aged care and disability residents (1A). Other priority groups were elderly adults over 70 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 55 years, younger people with underlying health conditions including disability, and emergency workers (including Defence and police) (1B). These targets have not been met. The Prime Minister did not prioritise negotiation of vaccines. The states were forced to help with the rollout in March, but are still beholden to the federal government to deliver supply. The new national targets are: 1) 70% of eligible Australians vaccinated to introduce selective lockdowns; 2) 80% to end lockdowns and allow international travel.

The pandemic has already had a negative impact on Aboriginal people, leading to greater barriers in accessing healthcare. Exposing vulnerable community members to unvaccinated (albeit masked) military members is an unnecessary risk. Moreover, it may negatively impact willingness to get:

  1. COVID-19 tested; and
  2. Vaccinated.

Take action: 1) Get vaccinated! I have; it’s safe and painless. It helps protect our loved ones and vulnerable people who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons. If you live in New South Wales, any adult over 18 years can now get AstraZeneca from mass vaccination hubs without delay, and from 4 August, you can also get it from your pharmacist. 2) Sign the petition Vaccines and COVID protection for disabled people now.

Mental health

The current approach may lead to further mental health risks. This is especially the case for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are already disproportionately jailed and are more likely to die in custody. Historical and ongoing patterns show that police interactions lead to adverse, and lethal, outcomes. Police cannot be trusted to treat Aboriginal people with the same care as they do non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal people have justifiable fear of police and Government officials coming to their homes, and removing their children at four times the rate of non-Indigenous people. First Nations people already experience intergenerational trauma due to ongoing colonisation. The military was used to impose numerous harmful restrictions during the 2007 Northern Territory, leading to long-term health damage.

On top of this, Jill Gallagher (Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation) tells us in Race in Society that COVID-19 has increased mental health risks for Aboriginal people.

Refugees and asylum seekers have experienced human rights violations and they continue to experience elevated psychological issues after resettling in Australia, including post-traumatic stress and depression.

Ultimately, 1.5 years into the pandemic, racist ableism prevails. The state and federal governments seek to ramp up voluntary vaccination among the general population, while struggling to provide impactful public health outreach to migrant and First Nations communities. Nevertheless, it is clear that the state is more concerned with enforcing the racial hierarchy, than providing culturally safe public health.

A culturally safe approach

Cultural safety can improve public health responses to the pandemic. Insights from our Race in Society episode, “Lockdown, Healthcare and Racist Ableism,” could be applied in the current Sydney outbreak, through:

  • Ethical engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with disability
  • Practical help, including groceries and improved services, to rural and remote Aboriginal communities
  • Application of cultural safety principles when dealing with First Nations people and migrants. This includes learning to recognise and redress racism in healthcare through better training of staff, and deeper consultation with communities about their needs throughout the pandemic
  • Improving data collection on race, language and socioeconomics, to measure the impact of policy responses on different communities
  • Enhanced accountability of pandemic policies.


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