17th June 2020
People have a very stereotypical view of Travellers which is usually roadside encampments but they only make up a small percentage of the Traveller community, as the vast majority live in traditional housing or on permanent sites. This means that the virus and lock down is affecting people in very different ways. Those who are still roadside face increasing challenges in accessing water and sanitation with gyms and swimming pools closed. Small trailer fridges meant that when the initial stockpiling frenzy started, people found it difficult to buy the items they needed. Frustratingly these Travellers haven’t been protected and whilst Government guidance is not to move them on, not all councils and Police forces are adhering to this guidance. This stokes the flames of public fear and increases a slew of vitriol towards Travellers, with the general public not understanding that these people have nowhere to go and are not moving out of choice - a lack of available sites and overcrowding on existing sites lays bare the root of the problem. For those in housing, not being able to see family is taking a toll on a lot of Travellers mental health. This is especially difficult with mental health and suicide already at exceptionally high levels in our communities.
Lock down didn’t come as a surprise, seeing Ireland and other countries act sooner meant that I had a sense of frustration as I waited for it to arrive. As lock down loomed, like many other Londoners, I jumped on tubes and buses, making my way across the city to work. Many Travellers live in multi-generational households and with caring responsibilities for my granny, I worried that I was putting her and other vulnerable family members at risk. In the end, nature forced my hand and I began working from home due to self-isolating rules and symptomatic family members. Caring responsibilities and shared spaces meant that preventing the spread of the virus was difficult and it was only a matter of time before I too displayed symptoms. I took some time off work and university, and followed the isolation guidance but the unavailability of testing means that I can’t say for sure if I had the virus.
I worry that the lock down may be released too soon and that a second peak is on the horizon, but there are other fears too. I worry about the financial impact for those who are already in a precarious position; many people are only a pay packet or two from homelessness and with suggestions that the furlough scheme may be scaled back, it puts even more people at risk. There are fears for young people who have only recently finished college but may struggle to find a job with the threat of a recession hanging over them. Like many other charities, the Traveller Movement has had to change how it is working and respond to a rapidly changing situation to help meet the needs of our people.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. This has allowed an opportunity to reflect on how we live our lives and how much time we spent slaving to the system. It has showed that flexible working is an option for many people and that we don’t need to spend hundreds of hours a year commuting. We should be ensuring that we are putting adequate funding into public services and truly valuing our key workers by paying them liveable wages. We’ve also seen that access to education and the ability to work from home isn’t a given, instead many people are unable to afford the basic services, like WiFi, which are desperately needed. I’m beginning to find balance and time to enjoy just being. Sometimes we have to step back from the rat race and breathe. It’s time for change and we shouldn’t waste this opportunity to tackle the systematic injustices facing many people in this country