A COVID-19 response network set up to protect the most vulnerable members of the Irish community in Leeds is providing vital services to nearly 100 people during the health crisis.
The Leeds Irish Communities partnership was launched in March, as the coronavirus outbreak hit Britain.
Led by the Leeds Irish Health and Homes (LIHH) charity, the group now consists of more than ten local Irish organisations - all determined to support their community during lockdown.
“We, as an organisation, reacted quite quickly to changing the services we provide when the outbreak happened,” LIHH Chief Executive Ant Hanlon told The Irish Post.
“We moved everyone to remote working very quickly, we cancelled our groups, luncheon clubs, things like that, and our main thrust of work became door-stepping - making sure people knew we are out and about for them - and doing lots of keeping in touch phone calls, making sure people knew they had someone to talk to,” he explained.
But as their working methods changed the situation for their clients did also, with lockdown increasing anxieties for many of them.
“Our team were keeping regular contact with our clients and we were finding there was lots of anxiety about health, physically and mentally,” Mr Hanlon says.
“Then on the back of all the worry starting, when everything was closing up, local businessman Sean Gavaghan, the Vice-Chair of Leeds Comhaltas, contacted me.
“He said he was self-isolating and it made him think about all the people who didn’t have anybody and how they would be dealing with it – and asked should we be doing something as a community.
“So, we contacted different people in our network and asked if they wanted to do something and out of that came the Leeds Irish Communities initiative.”
The initiative works by bringing a bank of volunteers together with the members of the community in need of support while on lockdown to do anything from shopping and medication trips for them to dropping off food parcels or taking time to make a phone call and have a chat.
Among those now signed up to that group are the Leeds Irish Centre, the Irish Arts Foundation, local Irish dancing schools, GAA clubs and, of course, Comhaltas.
And each of the organisations has provided some funding to support the cause, which is reliant on donations to keep its vital service going.
“We’ve had a great response to the initiative,” Mr Hanlon admits.
“In our first week we put a call out on social media asking if anyone wants to help or be a volunteer and we had 100 people sign up in the space of 11 days.
“And we now have 91 people in the community matched up with our volunteers, which is great – but ultimately we want to widen our network as far as possible, so we are asking people to let us know if there is someone who might need the service.
“The desire is that nobody in the community remains alone or feels alone during this crisis,” he adds.
As vital as that work is now, amidst the pandemic, Mr Hanlon fears the legacy of the coronavirus will impact their clients long after the battle against it is won.
The LIHH organisation serves 350 of the most vulnerable people in the Leeds Irish community every week, who are mostly aged over 60 and 87 per cent of which are living alone.
“Many of our clients were not in a good place prior to the pandemic and there is a fear among them now around death,” Mr Hanlon admits, “they’re worried about dying and no-one knowing they are gone.”
“We are also hearing a lot of anxiety around people wishing to be buried back in Ireland but knowing that’s not available at the moment and bereavement more generally – people, friends, family or community members, who have died and they have not been able to mourn or grieve those people in the time-honoured fashion.
“They can’t to go see the family, go to the funeral, go to the after event.
“That is a very big part of the work we do anyway, dealing with and responding to death, making sure people have dignity throughout that process and that is a big issue that we are finding now too,” he explains.
“What I fear will happen is that as the novelty factor of lockdown starts to wear off, especially as people suffer bereavement of family or friends, then you really see mental and physical health starting to deteriorate.”
Mr Hanlon adds: “I believe the legacy of this is going to be massive for organisations such as ours and our clients in terms of mental health – and I think we will see it for a long time to come.”
“I remember supporting a person who had fought in the war on Normandy Beach and he told me his friends on either side of him got shot and he didn’t.
“That massively affected him, he could never deal with it, he ended up with a drinking problem, it was the whole thing of ‘why me and not them?”.
“In the same respect I think people will feel guilt that they were not able to go to loved ones’ funerals or contact them or they’ll be asking themselves why did I not resolve something before they died?
“So, I do think we will have a lot of these issues to deal with as and when we come out of this and as time goes on beyond that.”
The Leeds Irish Communities initiative – how to get involved
Contact Leeds Irish Communities on 07904246531 if you need support during the Covid-19 lockdown or if you can volunteer to support the service.
Donations to support the Leeds Irish Communities COVID-19 initiative can be made here and should be marked LIC COVID-19.
Cheques can made payable to Leeds Irish Health and Homes Ltd or donations made to the organisation’s bank account - number 65505045 and sort code 08-92-99 - marked LIC COVID-19.