Faces of the frontline: How these vulnerable workers survived coronavirus in Australia

From supermarket staff to nurses, those on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic have continued to show up for work to help Australia recover, while migrants on temporary visas have been hit hard by the lack of support. Here, they tell SBS News how they’ve coped.

Bikal, Maria and Mohamad

Bikal, Maria and Mohamad*. Source: Tia Kass

Supermarket worker Nelio, 26, has been in retail for seven years. The past few months have exhausted him.

Source: Tia Kass

“It was like the atmosphere in the store had changed. It felt harder to breathe ... just this kind of tension in the air.

We have been some of the most at-risk workers in this pandemic. The number of people we have come into contact with in a single shift is crazy. We didn’t have a limit on the number of people allowed in the store at first.

Even though I did the same hours, I came home feeling tired and significantly mentally fatigued.

Despite all this, I’ve been getting people saying ‘thank you, you’re doing a good job’. That didn't happen before.

People have come to respect supermarket workers a bit more but I still think there’s a long way to go before we are genuinely treated as essential.”  

International student Momo, 30, had to self-quarantine for weeks and has been concerned about reports of racist attacks.

Source: Tia Kass

“I experienced my first lockdown back home in China in January. It lasted for almost a month and a half. Soon after, as restrictions eased, I managed to find my way back to Australia just before authorities shut the borders. I had to go into quarantine for 14 days. 

During this time, I got a notice from the hotel I worked at as a casual saying for the foreseeable future, all staff would be out of work. It has been a very stressful period, to be honest.  

I’ve also been avoiding walking alone through the city at night after hearing about Chinese women being targeted. It’s concerning.

I am a self-supporting student left to fend for myself. My visa expires in June but I’ve applied for an extension.

In China, my family is enjoying the spring sunshine and things seem to be getting back to normal here. I am now taking online classes and have since found a new casual job as a support worker.” 

Temporary visa holder Bikal, 24, lost his job in hospitality and doesn’t qualify for government support.

Source: Tia Kass

“I moved to Australia from Nepal five years ago and have always worked in kitchens. Before the lockdown, I was making pizzas. 

But as the coronavirus began to spread, the restaurant became very quiet. We all started to lose shifts and eventually, the restaurant closed entirely. 

For the time being, I have no job. I am not eligible for any government payments so my parents have been supporting me from back home.  

Through social media, I got in touch with the hospitality union. They’ve been really great and have been helping many of us hospo workers. 

Still, it’s been a stressful time for us. Some of my friends in the industry have gone to work on farms. Some are struggling to pay their rent. It’s rough. Hopefully, we have a job when all this is over.”

Maria, 31, is a registered emergency nurse. Her colleagues have given her the strength to keep going while she worries for her family.

Source: Tia Kass

“Working through the pandemic has been turbulent. Nurses have had to change equipment and patient rooms at a minimum every shift, sometimes hour to hour. 

The biggest fear has come from the potential of running out of personal protective equipment (PPE). Whilst it’s uncomfortable and can be a hindrance to care, it’s the only thing keeping us, and by extension our families, safe. 

I’ve been very worried about my family. Both my father and brother are airport workers and have lost a large portion of their income. I’ve had to help my parents navigate what support is available to them as they found the information very confusing.  

As usual though, I am not surprised at how resilient, fearless and adaptable my colleagues have proven to be. Members of our team have continued to show up day to day with a smile on their faces, ready to look after our community. I could not be more proud.”

Mohamad*, 29, is a farm worker with health issues. He has been worried about contracting COVID-19.

Source: Tia Kass

"I am a farm worker and union member from Malaysia, currently on a temporary visa. But it can end at any moment. I have no work or study rights.

During the pandemic I had an asthma attack. I went to the pharmacy to get an inhaler but the pharmacist told me I needed a prescription. I don't qualify for Medicare and I can’t afford to go see a doctor in order to get the required prescription.

I went home without the inhaler, still having difficulty breathing. 

At work, we have lacked basic PPE like gloves and masks. I need the money though for rent, bills and food. My housemates and friends face the same difficulties. I live with seven other people and we have all been concerned about getting infected.

My hope is that the Australian government will give migrants workers including undocumented workers like me the same rights as everyone else."

Primary school teacher Marie, 26, says adapting to remote learning has only increased the pressure on educators.

Source: Tia Kass

“Since the start of Term 2, I’ve had a sign on my door saying ‘I’m in a meeting. Do not bother me’. It’s kept me guarded against family disturbances. 

Remote learning has been a huge adjustment for teachers, students and parents. Many of my colleagues have had to upskill and become digital experts, teaching other staff members, parents and their students. It’s been a new and challenging experience for all of us. 

Workload and wellbeing are two issues constantly facing teachers and it has become even more prominent throughout this pandemic. As a physical education teacher, I’ve been filming my own lessons, teaching various fundamental motor skills, it’s actually been quite enjoyable. 

My colleagues and I have continued to be resourceful, creative and committed. 

As schools begin to reopen, I hope there is a newfound respect for the profession. Teachers and education support staff are undervalued, unappreciated and underpaid.” 

*Name has been changed

Tia Kass is a Walkley-nominated freelance illustrator and street artist. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. 

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

6 min read
Published 24 May 2020 at 2:14pm
By Tia Kass