A holistic approach to COVID-19 is needed for everyone in Northern Ireland

Angus Lambkin at a camp for displaced people outside Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.

Angus Lambkin at a camp for displaced people outside Mosul, Iraq, in 2017.

THE penny is slowly dropping and the magnitude of all this is becoming clearer. But still there is a need for an agreed assessment of the challenge, and a common understanding of both the depth and scale of the transition that society requires.

We may have strategy documents but are we all together in terms of proactively pulling together to get through this – all walks of life – public, private and community sectors.

This article offers the broad brush strokes of a holistic strategic approach.

The government will lead – it’s why we have it – but we also need it to bring together private and community capacities at all levels to leverage complementary efforts and ensure comprehensive coverage.

Firstly we need to make a clear separation between critical activities (i.e. life saving) that must be continued. Secondly we have to ensure everything else is either adapted to go online or stopped – and people must stay at home with the exception of only a small number of tasks.

Critical work must be rationalised and enabled. A comprehensive strategy must include the key sectors of health, food, water, energy, communications, transportation and security. And of course it must have coordination structures at multiple levels to pull all the capacities – public, private and community – together.

And we must protect them, for by definition their work is critical to our survival. This means that key workers should be given the equipment, training, infrastructure and time to ensure the virus does not remove them from the critical workforce.

The more critical and high-risk the work is, the higher the support required.

With resources clearly scarce, this prioritisation must be applied strictly or the critical support system risks collapse. The abandoned nursing home in Spain should be a lesson to us all.

And of course, for critical workers with no other option, childcare must be found for their children – with schools being a last resort.

Everyone who no longer has income must be supported to stay at home.

Schemes offered to date must be comprehensive and cover all those whose livelihoods have been affected, including the self-employed and those on zero hours contracts, the gig economy workers, all unsalaried employees and those who have been made redundant.

General social support and business strategies will of course be required to support a huge section of society which is now going to live the vast majority of its life online. This implicates all aspects of society including faith, arts, sports and community organisations.

And then if we ask the question – what of the ongoing support structures that help the most vulnerable in society; the homeless, the transient, the trapped migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees and people with mental, and physical, health problems who require medicine/treatment.

The only way this works effectively is if everyone has somewhere stable to be, and that they are supported to be there safely; safe from the virus and others forms of harm. And this support must include remote access to support and information.

These challenges were huge prior to the arrival of the virus and the exacerbation is becoming increasing clear.

Homelessness had already been rising due to lack of provision and funding was already declining. Social service provision – be it state, private or non-profit – will be critical to supporting the range of vulnerabilities.

Other vulnerable groups include, but are not limited to, those affected by domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, the elderly, the disabled and those with mental health issues.

The critical support sectors must be capacitated to meet these needs. The defunded and therefore dormant counselling and therapy capacity must be remobilised, for example.

These groups require a specific, resourced and coordinated approach to ensure their wellbeing, and indeed that of society – for the virus has shown us just how interconnected we are.

Simply put, these challenges cannot be ignored or diminished. Addressing them is critical to us all getting through this emergency.

And yes we need to talk about people taking their own lives. Five people a week were taking their own lives in Northern Ireland before COVID-19.

The loneliness and claustrophobia of isolation will have a huge impact on mental health.

Everyone in society needs to do their bit to reach out and ensure connections of friendship, family and community are sustained.

All structures, be they state, religious, sports, community, business or arts, must pull together to do their utmost to ensure inclusion and support for the vulnerable as they transition into this new and unprecedented era.

This goes from sharing clear and consistent messaging to ensuring activities are effectively targeted, safely implemented and coherently coordinated to ensure no one is left behind.

An overarching and holistic strategy must be developed to ensure that we all pull together. Specific approaches must be taken to sustain critical sectors and vulnerability must be addressed throughout. The response has to be coordinated effectively at all levels. Communications must be clear and realistic.

Key recommendations for fighting this crisis, for the vulnerable, are as follows:

  • Everyone must have a 'home' where they can safely adhere to the lockdown – and ensure critical maintenance.
  • There must be a commitment to a universal basic income for all and a moratorium on means testing and sanctions.
  • All whose employment has ended must be supported to enable them to stay at home.
  • Re-mobilisation of community engagement capacity including protective equipment for critical activities and support to enable online/remote work as required with mental health as the first priority.
  • Designation of critical telecommunications – phone and internet – as a public utility guaranteeing access to all.
  • Rent and debt payment obligations to be restructured.
  • Comprehensive access to food including safe delivery and use of vouchers for online delivery.
  • Lift any existing restrictions on people accessing public services and support, for example asylum seekers, the destitute and others with no recourse to public funds.

Angus Lambkin is a UN expert on humanitarian planning and coordination for complex emergencies, and is from Belfast. Most recently he has been working on the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon. He has previously worked on UN declared Level 3 crises in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq.

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