Critical to mitigating COVID19 within the Traveller and Roma communities during this crisis has been the partnership approach adopted by the HSE, government departments and Traveller organisations.  

The level of interdepartmental work now underway had not been seen before COVID19 and has enabled some timely and effective responses.  

“This combined action around COVID19 is encouraging,” said Martin.  “It shows where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

“It shows that health and well-being is something that crosses Government Departments.  It shows that you do not need a massive budget to make a major impact.

“The steps forward achieved during COVID19 indicate the best way to harness this energy is to operate on a whole of government basis and continue this progress.”

“We need an overseeing body that would help drive and co-ordinate the work in housing, health, education and employment and bring maximum effectiveness.”

Lessons from COVID19

“The HSE was clear in its approach to COVID19 as a public health issue and this approach impacted on the Department of Housing,” explains Pavee Point Co Director Ronnie Fay.  “In March a letter was issued by the Housing Department to local authorities indicating basic facilities were to be supplied where needed.   

“Extra space for self isolation was to be accommodated.  Electricity was to go where it is needed.  Sanitation was to be provided.  People living on the side of the road were not to be left without any supports.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis Pavee Point has been meeting with the Health Service Executive on a regular basis as part of a COVID-19 response – in terms of both Travellers and Roma.  

Along with other national Traveller organisations there has also been liaison with the Department of Housing, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Department of Education and Skills and Rural and Community Affairs.

So far €1.7 million has been spent in improving Traveller living conditions around the country.   Trailers have been provided to ease overcrowding, units have been refurbished. Families have been connected to electricity supply and site works have been carried out.   

“These moves are unquestionably positive however, they are also relatively modest and bring into stark relief the lack of progress on these issues in recent years,” says Martin Collins.

“Around the country some local authorities are still mired in inaction and bogged down in the conscious or unconscious discrimination associated with some aspects of inertia.

“But we must cling to the positive which offers a good practice model to be continued for the future,” says Mr. Collins.

“COVID19 has changed everything.  We must ensure that the positive changes and ways of working become the ‘new normal’.”

Groundwork Already In Place

Vital to any success has been some of the basic infrastructure already co-established with Traveller organisations in the areas of health and accommodation.

Almost 30 Traveller Primary Health Care Projects around the country have been communicating government COVID19 information to the Traveller community in a way the community can understand and trust. 

Traveller Community Health Workers have also been monitoring suspected and confirmed COVID19 cases in the absence of an ethnic identifier in state data collection systems.

“This information has been crucial in identifying clusters, organising testing and helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” explains Ronnie Fay. 

These projects have been supported by Regional Traveller Health Units and Regional and National Traveller Health Networks.

Now that the value of ethnic data can be seen, a question on ethnic group is to be included in COVID19 data collection systems.

The National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee has been an effective communications channel for identifying and monitoring the work needed to be done on official and unofficial Traveller sites around the country. 

This work was identified and followed up on by local Traveller organisations around the country as well as national Traveller organisations.

Mitigating COVID19 – Mitigating Inequality

While infection rates in general are at 4%, Pavee Point estimates that infection rates are at around 12% among Travellers.  

This is not surprising given the high level of chronic disease already existing in the Traveller community, overcrowded living conditions and lack of access to basic facilities.

Some excessively high figures of 50% and 60% infection rates have been bandied around but do not stand up to scrutiny. 

However, it is true that without widespread adherence to social distancing and cocooning restrictions – infection levels could be much higher.

While there were some publicised and unacceptable breaches of restrictions by a minority of Travellers – it’s clear that the majority have done their best in difficult circumstances and, like the population in general, need to be encouraged.

Pavee Point will continue to work with other Traveller organisations using a human rights based Community Development approach to ensure that inequalities for Travellers and Roma in key areas are eliminated.

Pavee Point will also continue to build on our learning from ongoing COVID-19 work on violence against women, education, drug and alcohol issues and national and international information sharing and practice exchange. 

“We cannot go back to stagnation and inaction after COVID-19 ,” says Martin Collins of Pavee Point. “We need to make sure that this crisis is used to bring about positive change. We need to hold firm to the gains that have been made and Travellers and Roma need to be made a priority in any Programme for Government.”