The Australian government has deployed approximately 300 military personnel on the streets of Sydney as the Delta variant outbreak that began in June caused a spike in the number of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases. The number of daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people rose from 0.23 on Jun. 1 to 14.90 on Aug. 14, a 64-fold increase.
At a press conference, Sydney police commissioner Mick Fuller said that military officers were visiting homes, checking whether people diagnosed with COVID-19 were isolated within the premises. He said that the operation was centered on the “welfare of the community” and ensuring that stay-at-home orders were being followed. However, the presence of troops has attracted criticism from many locals.
Australian Defense Force Brigadier Michael Garraway reassured residents in Sydney that the deployed troops would not be involved in enforcing any laws.
“I want to say right up front that we are not a law enforcement agency… That’s not what we’ll be doing. The tasks we’ve got underway today, for example, are delivering food, assisting people with setting up vaccination stations, and those sorts of tasks… I also expect that we‘ll be engaging once again with the Department of Health contact tracing,” Garraway told reporters.
Despite Garraway’s promises, citizens are concerned and angry at the military roaming the streets of Sydney. The deployment of troops followed the assignment of 100 extra police officers to the region a month ago to ensure compliance with lockdown rules. Sydney is currently under a lockdown that is expected to last at least until Aug. 28.
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The suburbs in Sydney’s southwest and western regions house almost two million residents, many of whom are essential workers in sectors such as health and food. These people have been instructed to wear masks outdoors and are forbidden from traveling more than five kilometers (three miles). Strict restrictions have also been placed on who can and cannot work.
“I feel we’ve been treated like second-class citizens… They have killed people’s confidence, they have triggered so much fear. What is this message? What is it doing to a community that’s already under siege?” Dai Le, a local councilor in Sydney, told BBC.
According to Arwa Abousamra, an author who lives in southwest Sydney, the army deployment is only going to add an “extra level of anxiety” for those residing in the region. She lives in an area that is home to people of Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, and Chinese descent.
“I have seen police every single time I’ve left my home… I have not been stopped, but I can honestly tell you I feel anxious leaving, almost practicing what I’m going to say to a police officer when they stop me… Police presence [has] caused a lot of angst among members of the community who come from those parts of the world where the police would have been an extension or an arm of the regime they were escaping,” Abousamra said to the media outlet.
In an article at The Guardian, author Paul Daley warns that sending an army into a locked-down Sydney leaves vulnerable people “angry” and makes them feel “targeted” and “ever more marginalized.”
Protests and vaccinations
A few weeks before the troops were deployed, Sydney witnessed a massive demonstration against the government lockdown. Protestors carried signs demanding “the truth” and “freedom.” New South Wales (NSW) police arrested some demonstrators and said that the march was a breach of public health rules. Brad Hazzard, the state health minister, said that it was not okay for people to protest amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Protests against the lockdown also occurred in Melbourne. “This is not about a virus, it’s about total government control of the people,” read one of the banners displayed at the protest.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been promoting vaccination as a way to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic despite serious known side effects. Roughly 36 percent of Australia’s population has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, with around 18 percent fully vaccinated.
The Morrison government has laid out a four-stage plan. Australia is apparently in Phase A of the plan, known as the suppression phase. When 70 percent of adults are vaccinated, the country would enter Phase B. Inoculated people would be granted special freedoms and rights.
“If you get vaccinated, there will be special rules that apply to you. Why? Because if you’re vaccinated, you present less of a public health risk. You are less likely to get the virus. You are less likely to transmit it,” Morrison told reporters.
Phase C would arrive when Australia had vaccinated 80 percent of the adult population. Finally, in Phase D, international borders would be opened.