A city divided: as Sydney comes back to life, scars of lockdown linger in the west

·6 min read

Sydney barista Minh Bui rarely used to have time to sit down at her own cafe, but this weekday morning she’s in no rush. It’s just her and two women seated in the corner.

Asked how business is at her Liverpool cafe since Sydney’s lockdown lifted, Bui motions to the empty seats around her.

“It’s pretty bad, it’s worse than before the lockdown,” Bui says. “In the past two years we’ve been struggling, and pre-Delta we were doing about 50% of the business we used to. Now, it’s 25%.”

Bui says her cafe, Oscarinos Espresso, was once thriving, fuelled by customers from surrounding office buildings that are still largely empty.

Related: Australia’s GDP falls by 1.9% as Covid contraction less severe than feared

She has had to lay off five staff and work herself to keep the cafe going, but she is betting that the local economy will soon bounce back.

“I’m so disappointed and worried about the future. We went from a business that was making so much money, to barely surviving every day. I don’t want to close, but who knows?”

While Sydney’s economy is recovering from this year’s prolonged Covid lockdown, business fortunes have been mixed in western Sydney, particularly in the 12 LGAs that faced the harshest restrictions.

Most restrictions on the fully vaccinated were officially lifted on 11 October, nearly two months ago, but Bui believes Liverpool is still operating at about 20% capacity.

Recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the areas that faced the harshest restrictions, some of the most diverse suburbs in the country, now have the highest rates of unemployment in the city.

Three statistical districts in Sydney, the inner south-west, the south-west and Parramatta, make up nearly half the city’s job losses in October.

The inner south-west’s unemployment rate was 8.8%, the highest in Sydney, while unemployment rose to 8% in the south-west and 7.9% in Parramatta. By comparison, the wider unemployment rate for the city was 5.7% in October.

It’s part of the hangover from a challenging and confronting couple of months in lockdown, business leaders say.

And the ripple effects of those harsher restrictions are being felt by businesses now, with consumer confidence affected by a lingering sense of caution.

Dimitri Karam, president of the Liverpool chamber of commerce and industry, said that while some businesses, especially those that adapted to the lockdown, were flourishing, many were still struggling.

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“There are mixed feelings, emotions and results, and it all depends on consumer confidence,” he says.

“I feel like we’re still living on edge, we don’t know what will happen, we are one foot in and one foot out. Both our feet are not in yet, and that’s why you’re still seeing mixed feelings among businesses.”

Carla Filipakis, founder and owner of specialised extracurricular service provider Decorati, said business is gradually picking up.

“I think it’s improving every week. But we’ve only just come out of lockdown, and a lot of us haven’t really ventured too far.”

Decorati runs arts and healthy eating programs in schools and shopping centres for children, so was hit hard by the lockdown.

Filipakis says she’s getting more bookings and next year is looking busier, but she warned that many in western Sydney were still weary and cautious.

“A lot of sole traders or small businesses haven’t reopened, there’s still a lot of anxiety around.”

The emotional scars left by the harsher restrictions, which included a curfew and limits on travel, may take longer to heal.

“I think there’s scarring just in the fact that we woke up every day to hear about cases in our community. So many of us were doing the right thing, but still felt targeted.

“I just feel like the restrictions have lifted but the community is in the same space.”

The state government appears to have little sympathy. The minister for western Sydney, Stuart Ayres, told reporters last week that the region needed to drop its “victim mentality”.

“I completely reject the idea that we live in a two-tiered city,” he said. “The government made decisions to attack the virus where the virus was.”

But community leaders insist the lingering sense of division from the rest of the city and fear that restrictions could return has not only weighed down the economy, but deepened other socioeconomic challenges.

A report on the impacts of the lockdown, prepared by the Western Sydney community forum and the Western Sydney migrant resource centre, found the approach taken by authorities had a detrimental impact on social cohesion.

“The public narrative has been perceived by local communities as an emphasis on compliance and punishment rather than on public health, resulting in increased social polarisation,” the report reads.

Dr Archana Voola, policy officer from the Western Sydney migrant resource centre, told Guardian Australia the approach taken by authorities was exacerbating and exposing historical rates of inequality.

“The foundations had cracks already. And when there’s an earthquake, those cracks are going to go deeper. It just so happened that this intense crisis situation made it obvious.”

In her research for the centre, she spoke to community leaders from various backgrounds about their concerns and hopes post-lockdown. Many raised lingering feelings of division in their communities.

“We are still getting questions from community leaders saying, ‘what is government doing in order to rectify this feeling of division, what is the plan? Are the problems just going to be discussed and never rectified?’

“It’s going to remain in people’s mind, especially if you’re vulnerable. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re outside the circle. I guess that’s going to be in their memory for a while.”

Voola helped author the centre’s Pulse of South West Sydney CALD communities report, which raises a “fractured trust” between diverse communities and authorities.

She says the nature of the lockdown, with its sudden shutting down of services and its set definition of home, family and authorised travel, particularly affected vulnerable communities.

“They still present with many mental health issues. They couldn’t cope, many community members used words like stress, anxiety, sadness, depression, to describe being locked in and locked out of family, especially extended family.”

The report also lays out recommendations, including introducing funding models for better multicultural programs, expanding employment pathways and developing improved health infrastructure.

“You need to invest in people and infrastructure. Because if you just invest in infrastructure, the skills of the local people might not match, then you have to, again, get people from outside to meet those industry needs.”

The NSW gvernment has announced a $5b “WestInvest” fund, but has not yet indicated where and how it will be spent. Ayres’ office did not respond when asked for details.

“We need more than just words,” Voola says. “We need to see investment and infrastructure, we’re not just saying build the next club, we’re saying invest in the cohesion, in the voices from the region.”

Despite the challenges facing western Sydney, she was optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think the community is sitting every day thinking about how terrible it’s been. They don’t see it as a hopeless situation, they’re resilient, they’re already moving forward and higher.”

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