By Dominic McGrath, PA
Ireland needs to soon “pause” and consider the impact that vaccine certificates and other Covid-19 measures have on marginalised communities, a medical charity has warned.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Safetynet chief executive Dr Fiona O’Reilly also warned that the Government should create a new department to co-ordinate the country’s response to the global migrant crisis.
Safetynet, which provides and organises medical care for homeless and vulnerable people, was one of the many charities that saw its work made significantly more challenging by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the crisis that has engulfed the world since March 2020 also presents important lessons and new opportunities for governments to rethink how they care for the poorest people in society, said Dr O’Reilly.
“I think in the emergency response, I think we responded pretty well to Covid in these groups,” she said.
“But what it revealed is and was an awful indictment of our society that it revealed people living in situations that are Dickensian and so that the pandemic is almost like the plague in those settings.
“If we learn anything from Covid, it should be that it has identified or uncovered the huge inequalities in our society. And that’s what we need to address.”
One concern raised by Dr O’Reilly is that the rush to introduce Covid-19 vaccination certificates and a whole range of digital technologies to tackle the virus threatens to exclude people already isolated from society.
She spoke herself about struggling to fill in a passenger locator form, required for all travellers entering Ireland from abroad.
“What you’re doing is you’re potentially designing an underclass, because you’re excluding people who are not highly educated with a high amount of income, that have smartphones and laptops. And that speak one language. And this is infiltrating every aspect of what we do.
“This is about what shops you go to, how you travel, whether you go and socialise in pubs. This is everything.”
She said it is “assuming that we have all these things and large segments of our society just don’t”.
Dr O’Reilly said she understood that in the early stage of the crisis there was simply not time for those kinds of debates.
“Discussion of it in the middle of the battlefield or when the fire is raging around you will cost lives,” she acknowledged.
“The fact that we just kind of roll over and do it has meant that we have amazing vaccination rates and that will save lives. Similarly, if we have too much dissent around vaccines certs it will cost lives, but I 100 per cent think that there needs to be pause, thought and debate,” she told PA.
Dr O’Reilly suggested that the time for discussion was “once you’re out of the crisis phase and things are stable”.
Yet she also believes that the Irish Government needs to prepare for another imminent crisis, building on the urgency the pandemic instilled in officials.
Dr O’Reilly said: “I began to see, and I do begin to see that actually homelessness can be solved. It’s doable.”
The next five to 10 years, she thinks, will bring the issue of what she calls the “global homeless” to Ireland’s shores.
“We can see what’s happening globally with borders being challenged and literally being broken down. And this is going to mean more people in difficult situations arriving on our shores, and it will only be a crisis if we don’t plan for it.”
Dr O’Reilly is proposing that the Government creates a new department with a specific focus on co-ordinating the response to increased migration.
“I would have an emergency preparedness department for the changing world that we’re fast becoming that would prevent this becoming a crisis. And it’s possible, because people coming into Ireland, they’re not looking for handouts. There’s a win-win,” she told PA.
“We don’t have enough doctors. We don’t have enough healthcare provision. That’s why we get so busy.
“There’s an increasing number of asylum seekers coming into Ireland, and we don’t have the medical care providers to tend to them. But they’re coming in with doctors among them, with healthcare professionals.
“I’d be preparing now for the increases and sustained increases and planning that happening. Not just responding, because that’s what we’re doing at the moment. We’re just firefighting.”
Drastic changes, she believes, are called for in the health system and beyond.
“We should plan, not respond, but we know what’s coming. So therefore design it to what’s coming. The other thing that is important, there is the people who design the systems are coming from a certain sector in society.
“They’re well educated, they vote, they work, they keep appointments, and they’re you and me.
“So those systems end up being for you and me. They assume people are working, they assume people have phones, they assume they get text messages, they assume they speak English. So all of those systems are for a certain segment.
“This is changing and it is going to change more. Now we have people that don’t speak English, that don’t have phones, that don’t have work, that can’t get appointments or make appointments.
“But those people aren’t involved in the design. So they need to be brought into being involved in the design.”