‘You name it, they’ve come’: south-west Sydney rallies to get the jab

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Ema Akl collects her daughter from childcare in Chester Hill in the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA which is an “area of concern”. She is an essential worker in a supermarket and is fully vaccinated. Credit:Janie Barrett

Sri Indreswari is struggling to adjust her mask. Wearing a mask with a hijab is a tricky combination – it involves extra padding and ties around the back of the head. She excuses herself as she replaces the face covering and fiddles with its straps.

The mother of one is one of the first in line on Wednesday morning to have her COVID-19 vaccination at a gymnasium attached to the Belmore All Saints Greek Orthodox Church, where a pop-up clinic is serving the local community.

She is here with her husband, Arbi Yanno. The Riverwood couple has tried for weeks to book a vaccination.

“We can’t get onto the websites,” Indreswari says.

Our conversation is interrupted when they are ushered to the front of the queue – they are anxious not to miss out.

Sri Indreswari photographs her husband, Arbi Yanno, receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the All Saints Grammar School gymnasium in Belmore. Credit:Janie Barrett

Volunteers in high-vis vests and face shields walk through the socially distanced lines of people, answering queries.

Among them is Chris, who would prefer his last name not published, a leader of the church community who has helped set up the clinic, run by NSW Health.

“The local member and area health were asking for hubs and we said we have a facility,” he tells me.

“It’s not about telling you to vaccinate or not vaccinate, or saying ‘I believe or don’t believe’. It’s about giving people the chance.

“It’s not about religion, it’s a medical issue. We have done our bit to assist. It’s got nothing to do with anti-vaxxers or pro-vaxxers.”

But some within the community do not approve.

“We have had a lot of backlash from parishioners and non-parishioners through social media,” Chris says.

“Some people are saying the church should not get involved in this, that it’s anti-Christ and you’re feeding the coffers of the billionaires and you’re making money out of it.

A vaccination clinic in the All Saints Grammar School Gymnasium, in Belmore.Credit:Janie Barrett

“That’s what they believe. They think it’s not the right thing to do. That’s their belief.”

Despite the backlash, which has extended to hostile phone calls to the church, the clinic is buzzing.

“You name it, they’ve come – Australian, Greek community, Indian, Bangladeshi. We have got a lot of cultures in the Canterbury area,” he says.

“The age group is anyone from young boys that want to go back to work from construction, to elderly people with letters from their doctors.”

The Belmore Greek church is on the frontline of the mass vaccination effort in Sydney’s hard-hit south-west, the epicentre of the run-away Delta wave of infections.

The backlash the church has had is not representative of all community sentiment.

But it does illustrate the unique challenges of vaccinating a multicultural, multi-faith community with pockets of socio-economic disadvantage, where some people are distrusting of government and some glean health messages from social media sources.

“The worst thing we can do is be dismissive of people’s concerns,” says Jihad Dib, the state Labor MP for Lakemba.

“Rather than be dismissive and deride them, say, ‘What are your concerns?’ and give them the response. This is how you address it.”

Dib says there has been “a bit of anti-vax sentiment but it’s really dissipating”.

Fear of the AstraZeneca vaccine has played a huge part in suppressing vaccine take-up in this part of Sydney – it is mentioned by everyone interviewed for this story.

People line up at the vaccination clinic in Belmore’s All Saints Grammar School. Credit:Janie Barrett

Dib says there are some in the community who are very mistrustful of the government, and a small minority who think “it might be a 5G conspiracy”.

“The deeper question is, ‘Why have people got that much mistrust’?

“It’s not a simple answer. You get the ones who come in and say it’s the government trying to control you. That’s coming from a place of hurt.

“They’ve got too much time on their hands. They’re not working. They’re seeing this irrational stuff going around.”

A man of Greek background I speak to on the phone, says that getting vaccinated “goes against everything I believe in”.

“I would rather take my chance with the virus.”

The 48-year-old father of two, who prefers not to have his name published, works in construction.

Noman Siddiqui of Lakemba says will get the vaccination so he can work and later enjoy some freedoms. Credit:Janie Barrett

He receives his vaccine information through links and videos on WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

“I’ve personally seen countless videos now, of adverse reactions,” he says.

“Lawyers and doctors in America are speaking out, saying the true number of adverse reactions is not being reported.”

The man says his views are not representative of the Greek community, and says he may have to have the vaccination if he is unable to go to work without it.

“I will do it only if forced from an economic point of view,” he says.

“If I can’t provide for my family it will make it hard.”

Inside the gymnasium at All Saints church, order reigns.

Members of the public wait for their call up to one of the vaccination stations manned by nurses. Four interpreters are on hand to assist – they speak Bengali, Greek, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) and Arabic.

The Arabic interpreter, Ahwad Halimeh, says he has seen people walk away from the vaccination hub next to Lakemba mosque, when they realised they were getting the AstraZeneca vaccine and not the Pfizer.

“From my experience, most people don’t like AstraZeneca. They believe it’s not good for them,” he says.

The Greek interpreter, Mary Kleovoulou, has also seen people walk away when they realise they’re getting AstraZeneca.

“They are wishing to get the vaccination but are unsure,” she says.

Golam Mowla, the Bangladeshi interpreter, says the people he speaks to in his community “are all reluctant to take the AstraZeneca”.

“They’re scared and panicked about the AZ,” he says.

Interpreters Ahwad Halimeh, Mary Kleovoulou and Golam Mowla are helping at the Belmore pop-up clinic.Credit:Janie Barrett

“They say, either give me Pfizer or I will leave’.”

Mowla directs such people to the doctor to discuss their concerns. He says that a small minority of religious people “think everything is predestined by God and a vaccine is not going to help people”.

He also says that some young men and women in his community mistakenly think the vaccine will reduce their reproductive capabilities.

“I was surprised to hear this,” he says.

Renee Moreton is the managing director of population health in the Sydney Local Health District.

Over the last six weeks NSW Health has liaised with local community leaders and faith organisations to establish pop-up mobile vaccination clinics at the Belmore Church, the Lebanese Muslim Association building next to Lakemba mosque, the Orion Function Centre in Campsie, Flemington Markets and Club Burwood.

“There is a lot of messaging about staying within your community, so dropping vaccination centres in the heart of the local community has been a very successful strategy,” Moreton says.

“It has made people more comfortable and confident to come forward and get a vaccine. It can’t be underestimated, the importance of trust in those communities.”

Moreton says there are some “pockets” of vaccine hesitancy in the south-west.

“For some people it is about knowledge and reassurance around the time frame for development of the vaccines, people asking, ‘Have these vaccines been developed too quickly?’”

But for many, the risk-to-reward equation has changed over the last six weeks.

“What has been the greatest driver for vaccines has been people who want to return to work. The need to just get on with life becomes greater than anything else,” Moreton says.

It’s morning tea time at the Greek Orthodox Church.

Upstairs in the break room, the table groans with homemade Greek delicacies brought in by the yiayias of the church community.

Maizen takes his grandmother for a walk around the block in Lakemba during Sydney’s lockdown. Credit:Janie Barrett

Volunteers snack on melomakarona, spanakopita, tiropitakia, kolokithopita and halva.

“Greek people like to feed,” says one. “They don’t care if you’re hungry or not.”

We chat to Karen Pinder, the acting nursing unit manager for Campsie, who has been seconded to Belmore for the day.

“Everyone is mucking in,” she says.

“It’s a great place to work. I really like being part of the program. Even though we never see our own families!”

I ask her if illegal immigrants or visa overstayers are coming forward to be vaccinated.

“We don’t ask those questions,” she says. “Your other circumstances are not relevant to us.”

She says all people need to receive a vaccination is some form of ID. If they don’t have a Medicare card, they will be given a paper certificate to prove they’re vaccinated.

We leave the church with full bellies and drive to Lakemba, where the streets are largely empty. The pop-up clinic next to the mosque is closed today. We stop to chat to a policeman and a soldier checking on a person isolating in a flat.

Further on, we get talking to a man standing outside his red-brick apartment block, smoking a cigarette with his mask pulled low.

He reaffixes it to talk to us, and introduces himself as Noman Siddiqui.

The 40-year-old lives with his wife, who is recovering from a major operation.

He believes that people should have personal freedom over vaccination.

“I don’t believe this vaccine will make me immune,” he says.

“I believe everything works according to God’s will. I believe that certain people are taking advantage of [the pandemic]. They are trying to make profit out of it.”

He says he was just watching a YouTube video of the Pfizer company CEO, in which he says he is not yet vaccinated.

“We are always fascinated by the freedoms of this country,” he says.

“That’s why people come here, because nobody judges them. But now we can’t make our own decisions.”

Despite his misgivings, Siddiqui is booked for his first Pfizer jab in the afternoon – he needs it so he can return to work laying fibre-optic cable for an NBN subcontractor.

“I just want things to get better. That’s the way to get things back to OK.”

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