- 22 May 20
The fact that there are clusters of cases of Covid-19 in meat factories is just one aspect of a wider problem – which is that we didn’t start to think of our migrant workers until it was too late.
I was talking to a migrant worker the other day. You can’t beat the taste of an Irish strawberry, he said. They’re just so much tastier than what comes in from Holland or Spain!
And it's true. Like the legendary new spud lathered in butter, they announce the arrival of summer. As we fearfully try to inch our way out of the lockdown, they’re especially welcome. And they’re here, in a shop or at a stall near you.
But they don’t walk off the plants, so this morning we raised a cup of tea, to toast the Bulgarians and others – each and every one a migrant – who picked our first bowl of the summer.
We’ve said this here before, but it bears repetition: these are frontline workers too and they deserve our best considerations. So, we’ve been really pleased to hear of a new initiative to produce public health advice on Covid-19 in different languages to help the migrant community to better understand the safety measures in place to control the coronavirus here in Ireland.
DEVELOPMENT OF INFECTION CLUSTERS
Dr. Shamim Syed, who works in general medical practice in Cavan, explained the rationale to RTE’s Morning Ireland programme. She said that it seems to be presumed here that migrant communities will hear and understand the messages about public health information, given via the news media or in written format. But many don’t.
Instancing Brazilian, Pakistani or Russian migrants, Dr Syed said they may instead follow public health messages and guidelines from their home country. That’s because, between social media and the internet, they frequently stick to their native media while working here. A lack of ease with English may also be a factor.
Dr. Syed told the programme there weren’t enough visual or video messages in Ireland for migrants, adding that may of the people she has seen in her clinic are economic migrants who have little or no information and are fearful about losing income. Those with coronavirus symptoms often don’t tell their employer, because they don’t have clear information about how they will be looked after.
But, of course, they will be looked after. So this isn’t a problem of health provision, it’s a problem of health communication. Now, under the aegis of Together Ireland, over 20 doctors and healthcare workers have recorded videos in 30+ languages. These are available on the website of the migrant and refugee rights advocacy group Nasc (https://nascireland.org/) and it’s hoped that they’ll be shared via WhatsApp groups and social media.
It seems like a really useful development.
But, when you step back and think about it for even a minute, isn’t it genuinely shocking that these information needs are only being addressed now, a full nine weeks into the crisis, and that it has fallen to an NGO to do so – on its own initiative at that? It is probably not right to blame the Minister for Health, Simon Harris (pictured). But what about the senior health figures. What about the National Public Health Emergency Team?
It’s not as if we didn’t know that there was an issue here, or that we can’t count. We have myriad reports about the key role played by immigrants in our retail, hospitality, food production and construction sectors.
According to the Central Statistics Office, there were 622,700 non-Irish nationals resident in Ireland in April 2019. This is 12.7% of the total population: which means that one person in eight is a migrant. The CSO also tells us (again, on April 2019) that 16,900 of those immigrating (that’s over 21%) had just upper secondary education or less. The kind of people, perhaps, who do the jobs that Irish people don’t really want to do.
So who should have been thinking about their information needs? And to what degree has the inaction contributed to the unfortunately deadly development of infection clusters in nursing homes, care settings and the meat industry? And where else is the shoe pinching?
These are all questions that will have to be addressed when the immediate panic has died down.
VINEGAR IN THE WOUND
There is a wider problem here. The information gap seems of a piece with so much of the response to the pandemic in Ireland. To use a footballing analogy, the Irish approach is based upon iron defence rather than creativity or flair. That’s old-school, and it might be okay if it really worked. The trouble is, the defence has lapsed and lapsed again, in nursing homes and care facilities and meat processing plants in particular. Forgetting migrants could well be another equivalent of an own goal.
There is also a tendency at political and expert level to blame the public for missteps. That kind of condescension pours vinegar in the wound and significantly raises everybody’s ire; as does the abiding and now growing sense that we’re being swamped with figures and yet not really being told the full story. The apparent mistrust of antibody testing is another sore point.
There is another way of putting it: it all feels very male, paternalistic and white, dirigiste and haute-bourgeois.
Take the first phase of easing. Now, we’re told, a couple can meet with another couple, provided they do so outdoors. And golf is allowed, with appropriate distancing, of course, as is tennis. Well, hooray Henry! But what about those who don’t play golf or tennis?
And what about those who don’t have gardens, those who just have the street, if they’re lucky? Or who don’t have big rooms where they can apply social distancing? People like my migrant friend who likes Irish strawberries.
The advice is, basically, don’t go out, don’t mix, but if you do keep your distance and best meet in a park because if you meet in your garden it’s okay to hand someone a bottle but then you have to worry that they’ll need to go to the toilet in which case you’ll have to disinfect the whole thing and if you give them food there’s the mortal danger posed by cutlery…
Jaysus, we’ll have to go back to eating as they do in Anatolian villages, with our hands and a flatbread… but hold on, you probably can’t do that either – you’re more likely to dribble, right?
Those who worry about cultural appropriation might baulk at co-opting Anatolian flatbreads as a vehicle for Irish strawberries. But then, we’ve appropriated our pickers from that part of the world, so why not?
Meanwhile, beside a building site close to HP central, you can see the off-duty migrant labourers, from Poland and other parts east most likely, clustering around their phones. They are off-site. They are not working. And so their employer has no say. All day they may have had their temperatures taken, been told to wash their hands regularly, and to stay at leat two metres apart. But at the end of it all, are they socially distancing? They are not, even remotely. The new initiative, it appears, has not got to every migrant. Far from it.
Is it too much to ask, then, that the considerable expertise being deployed to suppress the Covid-19 pandemic be broadened to include people who can cross-check for inclusivity and appropriateness; and who can add layers of openness, respect and humility where necessary?
It really would be a good idea. It might even save lives.