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Gypsies, Roma and other travellers are at risk from Covid too

PETER FROST finds travellers are even more at risk from the coronavirus than the rest of us — but not enough is being done to monitor and address the impact of Covid on their communities

TWENTY odd years ago, for about two decades I was the editor of the world’s largest circulation camping and caravanning magazine. One of the key issues of the time was the fact that more and more of what had been holiday static caravans were being used as low-cost permanent housing.

My wife Ann and I had a small canal boat at the time and our favourite weekend away was a trip along the Grand Union Canal from our home near Watford to Camden Market in London. On every trip we saw more and more permanently moored boats again being used as floating low-cost housing.

More recently I have watched as more and more people are using towed caravans, motorhomes and campers, not just as they used to, for holidays, but as permanent — if movable — places to live.

Add to these new groups the various Gypsies, Roma, Travellers and other communities who have been living this travelling lifestyle for centuries. First in horse-drawn wagons, then with caravans towed by car or van and increasingly these days, by large motor caravans.

All this makes it particularly difficult for all these travelling people to take Prime Minister Johnson’s advice that the best defence against coronavirus is simply to stay at home self-isolating.

That advice might work for those of us lucky enough to live in bricks and mortar accommodation but what of the estimated 70,000 people who live in some kind of mobile housing?   
Coronavirus does not affect everyone equally. It has hit people living in poverty hardest. Racial origins are significant as well. Black people are four times more likely die from Covid than white people, while people from a Bangladeshi background are twice as likely to die.
Some of the most marginalised people in Britain are Gypsy, Roma and Irish Travellers. Why then are these groupings left out of any research into the disease and are often excluded from Covid outreach programmes?

In Britain today 22,662 travellers live in caravans. Fifty-seven per cent are on private land, 29 per cent on local authority sites and 14 per cent on commercial caravan sites. This means there are no reliable statistics on Covid in these communities. We do not know the rates of death and severe illness among the various travelling peoples.

Of course Gypsy, Roma and Irish Travellers are not one homogeneous group. There is a huge diversity of communities who fit under the “Gypsy and Traveller” umbrella term — this includes Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsies and Travellers, Welsh Gypsies and Travellers, New Age Travellers, full-time boat dwellers and many other groups.

Each community has its own distinct history — some very long indeed — and many of the communities have their own distinct cultures and languages. Yet only two of them, Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities, are recognised in English law as ethnic groups.  

Even without good statistical evidence, we do know anecdotally that the continuing pandemic is already extremely challenging for many individuals within these disparate travelling communities.

These travelling communities are known to face some of the most severe health inequalities and poorest life outcomes, with higher rates of long-term illness, higher overall prevalence of reported chest pain and cardiovascular conditions and higher levels of respiratory problems.

This means that within Gypsy and Traveller communities, there are a disproportionately high number of people at increased risk of severe and perhaps fatal illness from the coronavirus.

The last census held was in 2011. It indicated that 76 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers in England and Wales lived in houses or apartments. This makes them similar to the rest of the population as far as access to amenities such as electricity, gas, sanitation and water supplies and also access to medical services.

While Gypsy and Roma were recognised as a distinct ethnic minority category in that 2011 census, the NHS does not currently list them or other groups of travellers by their ethnicity.

Individuals are not identified in health services as being part of the various travelling communities. Nor are they included as a specific ethnicity in Public Health England’s reports on Covid statistics.

Travellers are simply lumped into the category of “any other white background.” Unless the government addresses this at a national level, the serious impact of coronavirus on these marginalised communities will remain forever hidden.

Caravan and other travelling living brings extra Covid health challenges. Obtaining fresh water, gas cylinders for cooking and heating and disposing of sewage are all much more difficult if you have no permanent site for your caravan and are forced to move from place to place.

Those living on unauthorised sites experience the most significant problems, especially in accessing clean water and suitable sanitation and facilities for waste disposal.

Travellers who live and travel in caravans have specific health needs. A recent report in England and Wales noted that two thirds of travellers had poor, bad, or very bad health.

A recent study from the University of Manchester shows that the average health of a 60-year-old in a Gypsy or Irish Traveller community in England is similar to the average health of an 80-year-old from the White British population.

It is perhaps not surprising, in view of their lifestyle, out in all weathers, that travellers have a worse health status than the wider community. They die between seven to 20 years earlier than the rest of the population. Recent surveys show cases of asthma and repeated chest infections in more than half of both children and older people.

Health access is incredibly difficult for travelling peoples. This means that even simple problems are often not picked up until it is too late. In turn chronic conditions are almost impossible to manage properly. Covid is primarily a respiratory disease and this puts travellers in a precarious position with many at particularly high risk.

Where there are dedicated sites, either local authority or privately run, they are all too often located close to motorways, major roads, railways, refuse tips, sewage works and industrial estates, all of which make for poor air quality that is damaging to the health of people who live or stay on the sites.
Covid infections have serious mental health consequences as well as physical health impacts. These too disproportionately affect Gypsies and other travellers.

Travelling communities often have a very strong family culture and many live in large, extended family groups. This culture is an important protective mechanism against the discrimination travelling folk often face.

The desire to roam is key part of the identity of travellers. Now Covid social distancing measures within communities are particularly difficult.    

They have limited travellers’ ability to be nomadic and this has serious implications for the long-term mental health of people within these communities as well as the protection of long-term cultural traditions.

Vaccination is also more difficult for those without a fixed address. They will often have no computer or email access and are less likely to be registered with a fixed GP or health centre.

Life for all of us is more difficult under the new Covid conditions. Some  of my friends, comrades and loved ones have suffered, some have paid the ultimate price — and I’m sure some of your friends, comrades and loved ones have suffered too. Life may never be exactly the same again for any of us.

If it is bad enough for us all, then imagine what it must be if you have the additional issues of a constantly travelling lifestyle.


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