THE Irish community across Britain has been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a national body representing its interests.
Factors such as the ageing demographic of the Irish population – which has the oldest median age of any minority ethnic group in Britain – and the number of its members who work in the NHS or other frontline settings have seen the community “truly represented” on both sides of the coronavirus crisis, the head of the Irish in Britain (IIB) organisation told The Irish Post this week.
Reflecting on 10 weeks of lockdown that has seen the many older people among the Irish population across Britain forced to self-isolate in order to shield themselves from the virus, IIB CEO Brian Dalton claims the community has many to mourn but also much to celebrate as we look to a future which will be unrecognisable for a community “defined by its impulse to come together”.
“Our work at Irish in Britain has always advocated for reform to address the health inequalities within our community and in particular those regarding age-related illnesses,” Mr Dalton said.
“Given that we have the oldest median age of any community here (53) the crisis has undoubtedly affected us disproportionately,” he confirmed, adding “we mourn those who passed but also celebrate the incredible contribution of Irish organisations and the many Irish people in frontline and NHS care settings.
“We are truly represented on both sides of the Covid-19 challenge.”
As an umbrella organisation for 120 Irish clubs, societies and centres across Britain, IIB has seen first-hand the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on the Irish community at large.
All of their members – which are largely not-for-profit, third sector organisations - in some way support the Irish community, whether it be through providing direct, culturally-sensitive care and welfare services, arts and cultural groups or social settings and events that bring the community together.
When the crisis hit, their usual day to day offerings were put on hold, like everything else.
Many found other ways to work to ensure the most vulnerable among their clients, members or service users were not alone and did not feel forgotten while forced to stay home for their own protection.
Others have taken up the Government’s furlough scheme and now await the day that they can get back to business – whatever that will look like.
“We are proud to represent 120 organisations throughout the country – their response has been a remarkable demonstration of innovation and reaching out to those on the margins, Mr Dalton said.
“The challenge to ensure no one gets left behind is a real and present consideration as they have adapted to new ways of providing support.
“Many members will be managing disrupted financing this year as income from venues, community halls and fundraising events are limited because of the emergency,” he added.
IIB – whose own services have had to adapt to the pandemic also - has been able to offer advice and support to its members but is under no illusion that there will be tough times ahead for all of them.
“As a membership body for Irish community organisations the Covid-19 crisis has meant that we have had to adapt quickly to a new operating environment – and find a means to ensure we maintain close working relationships with those in our community,” Mr Dalton explained.
“We have shared fundraising opportunities with trusts, corporate aid and bespoke Covid-19 initiatives with our membership and both the furloughing scheme and the central government grants will support many in the short term.
“But the future of many organisations will depend on how quickly normal operations can resume,” he admits.
“For cultural organisations and those providing hospitality the [social distancing] limits upon groups of people will have profound effects on financial planning and resources.
“Organisations have adapted with incredible creativity, but it is footfall that is the lifeblood for community arts and culture.
“Patronage, membership, support and fundraising will be vital as organisations plan for a different future and new ways of engaging audiences.”
IIB is also “acutely aware” of the impact of coronavirus-related deaths upon the community and its inability to pay its respects through the usual traditions due to restrictions in place to curb the spread of the virus.
“We have chaired numerous forums for our membership across the country – for those involved in welfare and advice, for clubs and those delivering cultural services,” Mr Dalton explained.
“We are acutely aware of the level of loss and bereavement in our community with our age profile – and the painful restrictions on coming together to pay our respects, to mourn, to celebrate those lived lives as we would normally do.”
In a bid to ease that pain IIB has created an online memory page on its website to “remember those who have passed and to provide a place for shared appreciation at a time when coming together in the usual way is not possible” according to Mr Dalton.
Funerals and the way we celebrate the lives of loved ones we have lost are among many things that have changed in our lives due to the pandemic.
For the Irish community in Britain – and the many organisations found within it – celebrating and preserving their heritage is a task they undertake collectively.
It’s a responsibility borne by the community as a community and it is made all the richer by having many people come together to share it.
The social distancing that is set to become the norm for the foreseeable – if not for far longer while a coronavirus vaccine is waited on – does not appear to be an easy fit for a community so buoyed by coming together.
Mr Dalton agrees.
“The Irish diaspora is defined by our impulse to gather together, to share, to console, to participate in the meitheal [team],” he admits. But he believes there is a way forward.
“The desire for kinship and to relate will not diminish as we contemplate new rules and customs about how we associate and congregate, the response of our community in this crisis highlights how well we can still connect and support each other,” he says.
“Inevitably we will adjust to a new future because our history is one of renewal, rebuilding, and connection.”
He has more concerns about the health impacts of the virus on the people it leaves behind.
“We know the impact of social distancing and shielding has a profound effect on our community where many are vulnerable to digital exclusion,” he explains.
“While the loneliness and isolation of our most vulnerable is addressed by some brilliant outreach programmes, there is wide acknowledgement of the mental health impacts now and in the long term.”
He adds: “Self-care and relatedness, conversation and kinship, the daily routines that keep us healthy and connected are so much more difficult now and it is certainly the next public health challenge for providers, for services, for communities.”
But the CEO remains confident that the power of the community and the many organisations whch support it makes it more than capable of stepping up to the challenges ahead and emerging from the crisis stronger than ever.
“Irish people thrive in the act of the communal; working together to solve common problems, coming together for kinship and restoration,” he says.
“The social distancing restrictions mean those opportunities are denied to us at the moment, but new conditions have prompted and allowed us to innovate.
“While we can’t meet face to face, we have seen a huge appetite for collaboration and partnership in our online forums where challenges and solutions can be shared.”
He adds: “There is of course a wider debate now about the role of voluntary sector and community organisations to meet the needs of their community.
“The sense of the common challenge has certainly created interest in our work and the brilliant work of our members.
“The crisis has reminded many, if they needed reminding, that grassroots organisations are best placed to respond and adapt quickly – our job is to now ensure that the goodwill and sense of community endures and is properly resourced.
“If we have learned anything through this it is that community cohesion and development is now a task in which we can all participate – indeed it is our sector that will lead the rebuild and recovery.”
Join the ‘Coalition for Recovery’
Irish in Britain has waived membership fees for all of its member organisations during the crisis and has extended an invitation to all groups who want to be part of a “coalition for recovery” to join them. CEO Brian Dalton explains: “We will need all comers to help in the recovery – we all have the capacity, maybe an obligation, to be community champions now.”