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Foodbank is the 2020 Law Society of NSW President’s Charity, and the only food relief organisation in Australia to play a role in times of emergency and natural disasters such as fires, floods and cyclones. It’s why Ashurst Pro Bono practice executive Shiranee Pararajasingham leapt at an opportunity to help Foodbank deliver food to Sydney’s most vulnerable during COVID-19.

Every day for a 10-day period in April, Shiranee Pararajasingham would walk outside her home at Enfield, in Sydney’s inner west, and find groceries on her verandah. It wasn’t just a few boxes of pasta or a couple of cans of soup. There were bags and bags and bags of them.

Some contained food; others had essentials like nappies, milk formula, sanitary products and toiletries. The mountain of supplies appeared in an overwhelming response to a spur-of-the-moment email blast she sent out, asking her circles to support vulnerable families during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“When the pandemic struck, and people lost jobs overnight, I was really upset for the low-income families and single parents,” she tells LSJ over a video call. 

“I’m quite impulsive in helping people. I can’t be bothered waiting for committees – the need was immediate. I was thinking, if I was a single mother with three kids and I lost my job, how would I buy my food?”

Pararajasingham, a practice executive in the pro bono team at Ashurst, has been living in Sydney since 1983. She and her husband left their native Sri Lanka when they realised it was on the cusp of civil war – as members of the Tamil minority, they knew there was no future for the family they hoped to raise. They initially fled to Zambia, in southern Africa, and while her husband found work in the local copper mines they applied for entry to Australia under the skilled migrant scheme. 

Their story took a violent turn, however, when their application was approved. They stopped in Sri Lanka to visit family on the way to their new home, and were caught in the pogrom – the anti-Tamil movement that sparked 26 bloody years of war and claimed an estimated 40,000 lives. Their home was razed and they were forced to take shelter in a refugee camp. Reflecting on it now, she says they were the “lucky” ones, because they had a place to go. Many others weren’t so fortunate.

It’s part of the reason she felt compelled to help when the World Health Organisation declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus. She rang her local Foodbank, organised a drive, and sent an email blast to everyone in her extensive list of contacts. The response was swift and extraordinarily generous. Cars were stopping at her house all the time, and people she had never met were leaving donations.

Shiranee Pararajasingham Shiranee Pararajasingham

I’m quite impulsive in helping people. I can’t be bothered waiting for committees – the need was immediate. I was thinking, if I was a single mother with three kids and I lost my job, how would I buy my food?

When the time came to drive the groceries to the Foodbank depot at Glendenning, in the city’s west, they realised it wouldn’t all fit into the car. Her husband and son rented a ute, and when they weighed the bags on arrival she was amazed to see they had accumulated almost 400kg in goods.

Foodbank is an essential resource for many families. It helps feed more than 373,000 people every month and delivered more than 1,000 pallets of food (the equivalent of 400,000kg) to communities affected by the bushfires earlier this year. Demand increased again with COVID-19, and the charity estimates it needs a 38 per cent increase in supply to fill hungry bellies in NSW.

“It’s such an easy thing to do,” Pararajasingham says of the drive. “We are where we are, not because we’ve done something amazing – we’re just privileged, we’re blessed. We need to take care of people who are not as well off as we are. I’m from Sri Lanka, I’m a Tamil. I was caught up in a war, and I can’t forget anybody who is not as blessed as I am.”

The pro bono sector has always helped factions of the community at risk of being left behind. 

Robert Reich, a former United States Secretary of Labor, is now a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley. Recently, he’s been writing much about how the pandemic is deepening class divides – not just in America, but around the world. 

He describes four new classes: the remotes, the essentials, the unpaid, and the forgotten. People in the latter category are disproportionately poor and tend to live in circumstances in which social distancing is nearly impossible, increasing the likelihood of viral infection and further disadvantage.

It’s a philosophy Sarah Morton-Ramwell, a partner and Global Head of Pro Bono at Ashurst, references when describing the overwhelming task of allocating resources in response to the pandemic.

“This was such a local issue, and it affected every single member of our staff in every jurisdiction,” she explains. “Shiranee was the first of many who jumped to help, we’ve had so many amazing stories. COVID was so personal, and people were doing incredible things on their doorsteps.”

Morton-Ramwell has extensive experience in disaster recovery, from helping asylum seekers on the Greek Island of Lesbos to supporting recovery efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and leading a team that provided pro bono services in the fallout of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London. 

She says there’s always a lag between meeting the immediate needs of the community and being able to provide legal assistance, which is why effective recovery requires a staged long-term approach.

This will inevitably be the case post-COVID. Legal issues are emerging every day: family matters, housing disputes, employment problems, and more. Before lawyers can rush in and provide counsel, however, they must check that each client’s basic survival needs are met and ensure no-one is forgotten.