Travellers and COVID-19
CORK, IRELAND 29/04/2020
In these uncertain times, we find ourselves stuck and confused with who or what to believe. As news on the coronavirus (or COVID-19) floods the headlines, many have begun to panic and some question whether or not we as a nation have the infrastructure to survive this pandemic.
This is something that no one could have foreseen or imagined landing on their doorstep. Those who lack the resources are at much higher risk of not only contracting the virus but losing what little they have during this period of isolation. These are vulnerable people. In Ireland, one such group that falls under this category is the community of Irish Travellers.
THE COMORBIDITIES OF INEQUALITY
Travellers are a small indigenous minority that have been part of Ireland for centuries. Unfortunately, they find themselves in the disadvantaged category of Irish society, especially in areas like education, housing, and access to sanitation and basic health services. As you can imagine, the coronavirus can flourish under these conditions.
While only making up .06% of the country’s total population, 50% of Irish Travellers statistically do not live past the age of 40. Only 1% of Travellers live to see the age of 65 or beyond.
According to the 2010 All Ireland Traveller Health Study published by the Irish Department of Health, the average life expectancy of men, women and children within the Traveller community is, on average, 11-15 years below the general population. The number of deaths among Traveller infants is estimated at 14.1 for every 1,000 live births, compared to 3.9 for every 1,000 live births of the majority.
The study also showed that deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and suicides are higher among Travellers. Travellers are 7 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population and currently hold the highest numbers of deaths in Europe per 40,000 member populations, which is more or less the total number of Travellers living in Ireland according to the CSO in 2016.
You would imagine that circumstances have changed for the better in the decade that has passed since the study was published but, unfortunately, that is not the case. With the growth of population in the community, Travellers have been trying their best to survive on the same limited facilities and spaces as they have done for many years. To this day, however, many halting sites throughout Ireland don’t have access to clean running water or bathroom facilities.
ISOLATION AS PRIVILEGE
The novel coronavirus is an infectious disease that spreads through mere coughs and sneezes, by touching surfaces with the virus on them and spreading it to your face, and research suggests it can be as simple as breathing the same air of an infected person in an enclosed space.
In Ireland statistics have shown that personal contact is the main cause for the spread. When someone sneezes, for example, the droplets from their sneeze will fall on floors or surfaces near them. And if someone comes along and touches it, they could be in danger of contracting the virus themselves, which is why we have been told to keep our distance.
Travellers are already more susceptible to getting some form of chronic disease when compared to the general population, due to lack of basic facilities, resources, and access to health care. Under present circumstances where the government suggests we wash our hands on a regular basis and keep our distance from one another, however, the vulnerabilities of the Traveller community are compounded.
Indeed, Traveller sites – be they official or unofficial – commonly don’t have enough space to put distance between trailers or families, which is why social distancing is an issue. It’s also difficult to wash your hands on a regular basis when you don’t have access to running water.
Today approximately 3,000 or more Travellers live on the side of the road, with little or no access to basic amenities such as running water, toilets, refuse removal and even electricity. But Travellers have been living in such poor conditions for decades!
Although money was allocated to local authorities to build Traveller-specific accommodation with working toilets, refuse service provisions and common necessities like taps and electricity, not much has changed. According to a 2019 report, most of the money went unspent and members of the Traveller community were forced to compete for resources between them. Many suffered greatly as a result.
Prior to 2019, a campaign was underway called Traveller Homes Matter. This campaign was lead nationally by the ITM (Irish Traveller Movement) and a focal point of my role within the organisation. The main aspect of the campaign was to pressure the Irish government to implement policy and act upon, Traveller specific accommodation on a national level.
Last summer the campaign came a conclusion following the publication of a report outlining the current accommodation crisis and living conditions. The hardships of overcrowding faced by the community as a whole were central to this report, which emphasised the need for direct action. However, no policy or plans have been put in place – even as these issues relate to our current circumstances.
All of which is to say that Travellers are already at a disadvantage and due to limitations faced by the community, it is impossible to follow current guidelines.
NAVIGATING A PANDEMIC AD-HOC
On the 3rd of March 2020, the Department of Housing announced specific instructions and funding to local councils to provide Travellers with the basic amenities needed for the duration of the pandemic. Traveller sites have since been in the process of receiving water and sanitation facilities.
As I write this nearly two months later, however, I question whether or not local authorities will implement plans and allocate funding as previously directed.
Personally, in my own interactions with other members of my community and personal observations, not a lot has been done. Before this, many Traveller families would have had to share toilets and washrooms with other families. As Travellers and Irish natives, it is our nature to embrace those around us – especially our family and friends. Physical distancing has become something that is very hard for people to accept.
Self-isolation in overcrowded conditions can be particularly tough. You may have more than one family living together in the same bay, which means you may need to pass or come into contact with them in order for you to be able to go to the shop or see the doctor. Keeping at least 6-foot distance can be close to impossible when you have trailers perched up alongside one another, because of lack of space.
Something as simple as opening your windows could mean you are still not within your boundaries – not just with those in your own bay but those in the bay behind or next to you.
Travellers have called for housing and appropriate living conditions to be built for so many years. If action had been taken when monies were allocated in the past, we would not be in the precarious position we are in today!
Indeed, this is the fault of local authorities and the state. The lack of action and enforcement of plans by both parties is not acceptable! Nor is it acceptable for the national media to shift the blame to the Traveller community.
The Irish Times, for example, published on the 2nd of April 2020 that the spread of coronavirus among Travellers was due to their not taking this pandemic seriously! This claim, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Many Travellers are unable to follow the guidelines in place because of circumstances beyond their control.
As I mentioned, Travellers face disadvantages within the educational system. Many choose to leave school because of racial prejudice or because they were nomadic and did not settle in one place for too long. This in turn means many of the Traveller community are unable to read or write. Understanding public posters, government letters, booklets and even searching online for information surrounding the coronavirus can be extremely difficult.
As Travellers are among the most vulnerable people in this country, the clear lack of infrastructure in place to ensure their safety is a failure of the state.
MUTUAL AID AND COMMUNITY
In Ireland, official Traveller sites tend to be built on the outskirts if the city. It is not uncommon for someone to have to travel an much further than 2km to reach a shop or seek medical attention.
Imagine that you are experiencing symptoms of the virus: you don’t feel well and understand you need to isolate but cannot drive or don’t have access to a car. How do you approach this type of situation? An ambulance can be called but most wouldn’t fit into the bay of a site to attend to the person. Typically, local authorities hold the keys to site barriers, sheds and gates. This means that if a barrier was obstructing an ambulance or fire truck, for example, no one would be able to open or move it, to allow them access.
Funerals could also present dangers. Reducing the number of attendees can be difficult because Travellers typically have much bigger families. It was proposed by the Irish government that only close family may attend, such as brothers, sisters, parents and children. Numbers are said to be kept to less than 10. But when it comes to a much larger Traveller family, like my own, you will find that they could have at least 10 brothers and sisters, without counting anyone else.
Choosing who should and shouldn’t attend is something that Travellers will not and should not have to do. This is very inhumane and goes against our core values as Travelling people and devoted Christians. We are all reared up to be a very close family unit.
Speaking directly to the community now, however, I would advise to avoid social gatherings where possible and be cautious when coming into contact with other people. I want to commend my community for how they have handled this situation so far given that the odds are stacked against us!
For instance, a Traveller hotline has been set up to give the community advice and updates on the current situation, and to direct individuals to a place where they can be tested. It has been noted that Travellers should also announce to their doctors that they are in fact members of the Traveller community so that they can be looked after vulnerable persons and receive the relevant care.
We will rise above this. It saddens me that we are limited to using social media as a remembrance of those who have passed through this time and were unable to come out and embrace one another like we have always done. I want you all to keep using social media to keep our memories alive and to keep in touch with those around us! As we all try our best to isolate under these conditions, online contact is the best way to check up on people who may not be O.K., especially those you know who struggle with loneliness.
1. Traveller Hotline – HSE: 1800 808 809
2. National Traveller organisations:
- ITM (Irish Traveller Movement): _________________01 679 6577
- Minceir Whiden: _______________________________ 0858804450
- Pavee Point: __________________________________01 878 0255
- National Traveller Mabs: ________________________07 610 7200
- National Traveller mental health Network: __________085 125 3211
- Exchange house: _______________________________01 872 1092
- HSE General Public hotline _________________________1850 241850
3. Other notable contacts
- Travelwise _______________________________________01 613 1733
- Alone __________________________________________081 822 2024
- Seinor line ______________________________________1800 804 591
- Samaritans ______________________________________116 123
- Pieta house ______________________________________1800 247 247
- Womens aid _____________________________________1800 341 900
- Flac _________________________________1890 350 250/01 874 5690
- Womens rights ___________________________________1890 747881
- Treshold ________________________________________1800 454454