NSWCCL notes with concern a request from NSW police for support from the Australian Defence Force to enforce COVID-19 restrictions. While the army has previously been used to enforce border restrictions and hotel quarantine, the use of the army to control citizens as they go about their daily lives is an unprecedented escalation.
This is a health crisis, not a national security crisis, and it must be approached as such. As noted by NSWCCL committee member Lydia Shelly in an article in the Guardian, the disproportionate policing of lower socio-economic areas that historically have a strained relationship with police is not the answer.
Marginalised communities are already impacted more than relatively affluent communities by the crisis. They are less likely to be able to work from home and more likely to have lost work and be suffering severe financial stress during the lockdown. Those who can work may well be placed at risk of contracting COVID as they travel to and from work, and during their working day. Many people are facing extremely stressful circumstances and uncertain futures.
Exacerbating this situation, regulations have changed - and continue to change - at a rapid pace. Those changes have not been communicated well or consistently. It is hard enough to understand what is permitted for those whose first language is English, let alone those from a non English speaking background. Running the risk of a fine over a misunderstood regulation is an additional stress for many people. Concerns have already been raised that the fines, which are $1000 for individuals and $5000 for businesses, could disproportionately affect people in lower socioeconomic areas. Professor in Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School Murray Lee told Redfern Legal Centre that the data suggested a map of disadvantage could be emerging, whereby those in lower socioeconomic areas are more likely to be slugged with a hefty fine.
Heavy handed policing of the kind that has been seen in SW Sydney can only inflame the current situation, resulting in further civil unrest of the kind that was seen over the weekend. Bringing in the ADF does not bode well.
NSWCCL calls for a rethink of the NSW Government's handling of this crisis before it escalates out of control, and for restraint on the part of all police and ADF personnel. It is also to be hoped that there is no repeat of the violent protests seen last weekend - the right to peaceful protest must be exercised very carefully in the current circumstances, and may well best be exercised online.