Coronavirus forces us to look our society’s problems straight in the eye
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Coronavirus forces us to look our society’s problems straight in the eye

Do you remember the first time you heard someone say that we should be worried about a virus that was making people sick in China? 

My partner is a natural born worrier and he was fretting about this at the beginning of the year.  I did not pay much attention to him at the time because I had heard a version of these anxieties many times before and nothing had ever come of any of them.

Alas, something did come of this one.  The coronavirus travelled across the world and as of this moment, 26,838 people here in Ireland have fallen ill.  1,773 of those have died.

Everyone’s life has changed because of the restrictions that have been put in place to control the spread of the virus.  Many of us miss our past freedoms and wonder if we will ever again be as free as we once were.

Another thing I did not expect was the way in which this virus attacks societies at their weakest points.  It reveals problems that we have been ignoring for far too long.

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I wonder if it will force us to face up to those problems at last.

Take our nursing homes for example.  On the 12th of May, when there were 23,135 cases of coronavirus in Ireland and 1,447 deaths, people in nursing homes accounted for sixty two per cent of those.

The virus ravaged our nursing homes because the staff there did not have enough personal protective equipment, nor enough money to buy it.

As a country, we did not look after our elderly during the pandemic, which inevitably led to questions about how well we had been caring for them before that.

Have we been showing them respect?  Have we been helping them to live their lives to the full right up to the end?  Or have we simply been casting them aside and conveniently forgetting all about them?

Another problem we have been forced to look at is the system of direct provision for asylum seekers.

This system, which was set up as a short-term solution in 2000, involves the State renting hotels and paying private contractors to look after asylum seekers.

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The result of this is that asylum seekers end up living in cramped conditions, with whole families in a single room, or with up to eight single people sharing a bedroom.

They are not allowed to prepare their own food and must instead eat what they are given.

They are limited in what paid work they are allowed to do, and they have few opportunities for education or training.

This would not be a big problem were it not for the fact that they have to live this way for too long.

The length of time an asylum seeker spends in the direct provision system is two years but there have been cases where people have been there for up to twelve years.

Their lives are effectively paused for all of that time, which means that many of them suffer from depression and other mental health issues.

I have written here before that it is past time to end this system and to put a more humane one in its place.  Now there is a chance that the coronavirus might force us to do just that.

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In the middle of March, more than 100 asylum seekers were moved from Dublin where coronavirus was rampant, to a hotel in Cahersiveen here in Kerry, where it was not.

The people of the town spoke out against this because they did not think the hotel was fit for purpose.  As nobody had visited the hotel to carry out an inspection in advance, they may have been right.

The first asylum seeker was diagnosed with coronavirus in the middle of April and 20 more cases followed.

None of these people were able to self-isolate and everyone around them felt unsafe.

Up to 30 people left the hotel, even though they had nowhere else to go and others went on hunger strike until the government relented and agreed to find more suitable accommodation for them.

There were problems in our nursing homes before the arrival of coronavirus.

The direct provision system was not fit for purpose from the very day it was founded.

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This virus, accursed though it may be, might have some positive consequences.

Maybe it will force us to face up to problems that we have been sidestepping for too long.

Maybe we will emerge from this pandemic as a more compassionate society.

Maybe…