Travellers were denied the chance to social distance 

The Traveller community have suffered 46% more Covid-19 cases per capita than the general population
Travellers were denied the chance to social distance 

Overcrowding has exacerbated the high incidence rate of Covid-19 amongst the Traveller community. Picture: Larry Cummins

Inspired by the words of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, in April of 2020, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told us that if we could winter this one out “we can summer anywhere”, but for many, summer might feel a long way off, if it ever arrives. 

This is especially the case for the Traveller community who have suffered 46% more Covid-19 cases per capita, than the general population. 

Case numbers in the Traveller community soar as help remains relatively undelivered.

State discrimination towards Travellers is nothing new, in fact, it has continued to thrive as the last form of ‘acceptable racism’ in Ireland.

To understand the roots of the discrimination Travellers face, a quick glance at the Report of the First Government Commission on Itinerancy, published in 1963 would reveal its origins. 

The report set out to “to enquire into the problems arising from the presence ... of itinerants and to examine the problems inherent in their way of life”. 

The ultimate objective of settlement and spatial uniformity has been the cornerstone of state policy concerning Travellers in the years that followed.

Having recently completed research on Covid-19 incidence rates in the Traveller community, it was no surprise to find they have suffered enormously.

The study looked at August to December 2020 and painted a grim picture of the reality they face. 

Over the 15-week study, data provided by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) found there were 1,496 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 population in the Traveller community compared to 934 cases in the general population.

Overcrowding has exacerbated the high incidence rate amongst the community, yet local authorities routinely underspend on Traveller accommodation despite the budget being available. 

This is due in part to local objections to Traveller-specific accommodation being built in cities and towns across the country.

The year 2020 marked 57 years since the publication of 1963 report and yet, Irish Travellers, Pavees or Míncéirs, continue to figuratively and literally live on the margins of Irish settled society.

Ireland has suffered the catastrophic effects of this virus and we have all felt its force but our minority groups gave suffered especially. 

Irish Travellers have one of the lowest life expectancies of any social group in Ireland, with 3% living to over 65, according to the latest report from the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread consequences, with some of these consequences surpassing the disease itself. 

The concern is that the pandemic's engendered effects will exacerbate the existing exclusion and poor health status within the Irish Traveller community compared to the general public. 

A recent report from the Economic and Social Research Institute found that Travellers are 2.6 times more likely to contract the virus in comparison to the white Irish population.

Social determinants ascend from the social and economic conditions that Travellers live in and have been cited as the main cause of the poor health status among the Traveller community. 

Today, 2,000 Traveller families and 3,000 Traveller children are living in inadequate conditions with many having no amenities, such as water, toilets, lights and heating. 

The lack of sanitation stations, as well as substandard living conditions, mean that many members of the community are often unable to engage in public health measures such as hand hygiene, social distancing or self-isolation.

The considerable decrease in funding to Traveller accommodation since 2010 and the consistent failure to disburse the allocated funding in full at a local level can be seen as a failure by government to respect, protect and fulfil the fundamental human rights of Travellers, which has become apparent in the global pandemic today. 

A vigorous framework of monitoring and evaluation should be devised with the objective to guarantee full and fair disbursement of allocated funds.

This pandemic was an opportunity for the state to begin reconciliation with Travellers, following many years of discrimination and marginalisation. 

The government have repeatedly called for special protection to be given to our vulnerable groups, but it would seem that our government are being selective about who is considered vulnerable.

Those of us fortunate enough to be able to self-isolate, to social distance within our community, take for granted the importance of our relative ease in following the guidelines, but for many it is unachievable. 

Years of discrimination and social isolation has meant that our vulnerable communities are suffering a disproportionate burden during what has been an incredibly difficult year. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar speaks of a summer within reach, but it should be a right of all people on the island of Ireland and not just the few. 

In order for Travellers rights to be fully realised, the State, as well as local authorities, need to listen to the voices of those they claim to protect and treat all minority and vulnerable groups as equal to each other. 

It’s only summer when it’s summer for us all.

  • Sian Abraham Long is a human rights activist and an MSc Human Rights student at UCD School of Politics and International Relations.
  • David Friel is an Irish Traveller and human rights activist. He is a social care leader and an MSc student in Social Care and Social Justice at The Institute of Technology Sligo

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