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Opinion: 'Conditions for Travellers have been difficult in the Covid-19 shutdown'

Bernard Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement says more needs to be done to protect Travellers during this pandemic and beyond.

Bernard Joyce

WHEN THE WORLD Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, and with it measures introduced to slow down the spread of the virus, it brought a level of panic to everyone, including within the Traveller community and to those who were most vulnerable with underlying health issues.

Government assurances helped, but in my community where under normal circumstances, there are huge disparities compared to the wider general population, anxieties were elevated. This is due to the poor standard and crisis in Traveller accommodation, a situation which meant the odds are stacked against our safe outcome from the pandemic.

Our housing crisis

For over 20 years we have seen national Traveller Accommodation Programmes to ensure Travellers have access to a home, but there has been widespread lack of progress across all local authorities and millions unspent in that time. Last year, just 33% of the budget was spent and less than half of the same spent in 2017 and 18.

That’s just part of the story for Travellers. Those budgets have been used largely to refurbish and maintain existing accommodation with very little used to supply new badly needed accommodation.

This has left the Traveller community vulnerable to Covid-19, especially the over 2,000 families and upwards of 3,000 children living in inadequate, unsafe and temporary conditions. Around 1,045 families live on Local Authority Halting Sites but 257 are sharing basic site facilities, with extended family.

As it stands, 174 other families around the country are living at Basic Service Bays with only portable water supply, toilet and washing facilities and 927 families are sharing housing with grandparents, parents and siblings.

Covid-19 response

It’s impossible to tell at this stage what the true impact of Covid-19 on Travellers has been. The Department of Health has asked the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) to include more data specific to ethnicity in their systems. As things stand, we believe there are more cases of the virus in the community than the figures currently show. 

Pavee Point has been monitoring cases across the country in partnership with Traveller Health Units, local Traveller organisations and Primary Health Care Projects. Nationally, over 150 Travellers have tested Covid-19 positive with three deaths. Of these, 57 positive cases were in the Eastern region and accounted for two deaths.

Due to the higher risk associated with health and living conditions, Travellers were identified by the HSE as a vulnerable group and could avail of fast-access testing, some of which has been carried out on halting sites where infections have occurred.

Traveller families despite where they are living, have observed social distancing, but like the majority of the population, Travellers have experienced the frustration of not being in close contact with family and normal life. As Irish people, we’re wedded to the social and cultural interactions of family and friends. For Travellers, this is an unavoidable everyday reality, as extended families often live together and your older parents could be living right next to you. Taking care of family has been our way of life through decades of hardship and exclusion.

The Irish Traveller Movement staff and members have been working tirelessly to help mitigate and reduce the impact of Covid-19 on the community and save lives. We were initially fearful that without the basic facilities to protect themselves, like water, electricity, sanitation Travellers would be at greater risk. We continue to work at pace to respond sometimes over weekends and late nights, to address the many challenges and likely more ahead.

Working with Minister Damien English and the Department of Housing and Local Government (DOHLG) from the onset of Covid-19, a circular was issued to all local authorities outlining requirements to provide water, electricity, sanitation and refuge and self-isolation units for the community.

To date, only 20 local authorities have drawn down funding and others are moving too slow, causing a further loss of confidence within the community – that during a humanitarian crisis, we continue to come last.

Acceleration of the delivery of those basic needs to Travellers is critical and many are concerned about a second wave of infection in 2020. During this crisis, we have been increasingly concerned about suicide in the community. Travellers’ vulnerability when it comes to mental health was already evident for many years before this pandemic, with suicide rates seven times higher than for the general population.

For Traveller students, inadequate access to technology via broadband or devices has meant many have struggled with study and keeping pace with their peers and will be further disadvantaged, a situation we have noted to Education Minister Joe McHugh.

There are some good examples too of support through this pandemic. Traveller parents and some teachers have done their best to reduce the impact on students and local Traveller groups have engaged in delivering activity packs to parents and WIFI hotspots.

Local Traveller groups from the onset are responding to the community effort in all kinds of ways, raising funds for basic supports, supplying hygiene packs to those most in need, monitoring accommodation supports and supporting infection control, these are the other unseen heroes.

It is deeply frustrating for all these hardworking groups, however, when some media outlets reported in a certain way on a minority of cases involving Traveller funerals during the shutdown. This drives a further wedge between Travellers and the wider community. I appreciate that things were tense for everyone at the time, but the reporting of these events was done without empathy or cultural understanding, leaving the Travelling community feeling let down.

Those reports created a social media backlash and an increase in online hate towards my community, creating further anxiety and stress. Young Travellers are asking “why are we being singled out”, while the clear majority of Travellers including myself, are adhering to guidelines.

Global events

As Travellers, we understand only too well the reaction and protests in the US and around the world under the banner of Black Lives Matter, as we have experienced institutionalised racism and segregation in Ireland over decades, a legacy that remains with us today.

Race crime and race profiling are sometimes misunderstood to be a matter of colour. Our community and our children continue to be subjected to high levels of racism and are regularly dehumanised by the hate of others. During the counter-narrative of the protests the slogan “All Lives Matter” has been brandished, but clearly that is not the case, when some lives have always mattered less.

For Travellers, like black, brown and all people marginalised by racism, our lives should matter not more than, but the same as, everyone else’s. That change is needed in Ireland by supporting legislation and a robust effort by the political establishment and its political leadership.

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Hate crime law and a national anti-racism strategy is urgently required and must be formulated in the new programme for government, where Travellers are directly named in the strategy, and which will enable the building of a more inclusive, fair and just society for all. We have advocated strongly for a Traveller representative voice in the Seanad under the Taoiseach’s nomination, this too would be a historic day for our people if it happens.

Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard”. The post-Covid Ireland will likely be different, but we should aim for better when it comes to the rights of all people. If ever there was time for a change, it’s now.

Finally, I commend all the frontline services who have worked tirelessly, and our thoughts and prayers are with families who have lost loved ones from Covid-19 today.

Bernard Joyce is Director of the Irish Traveller Movement.

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