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Covid and poverty take no prisoners on either side of NI's political divide

The spread of the virus in Belfast highlights the links between deprivation and illness, writes Rodney Edwards


CHALLENGES: Community workers Gary Lenaghan and Deirdre Walsh at Cupar Way ‘Peace Wall’ dividing the Shankill and Falls areas. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

CHALLENGES: Community workers Gary Lenaghan and Deirdre Walsh at Cupar Way ‘Peace Wall’ dividing the Shankill and Falls areas. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

CHALLENGES: Community workers Gary Lenaghan and Deirdre Walsh at Cupar Way ‘Peace Wall’ dividing the Shankill and Falls areas. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

In Northern Ireland, the remnants of a troubled past still linger, with more than 100 peace walls in Belfast separating the Catholic and Protestant areas with corrugated metal sheeting and wire mesh - a constant reminder of the division that existed between the two communities in one of the region's most socio-economically deprived areas.

Now, as the coronavirus takes hold, the links between that deprivation and Covid-19 shows how the burden of illness and death is being shouldered by both sides of this historic divide which have, in fact, much in common in war, in peace and in a pandemic.

In some parts of Northern Ireland where transmission is particularly high, as many as one in 40 people currently has the virus - while elsewhere it is one in 60. Last week, its seven-day rate was higher than in England and over twice that of Scotland, with an 85% increase since St Stephen's Day in the Belfast Health Trust area alone. Some 21 patients are currently in intensive care across the city, while more than 900 staff members are off work with Covid-19 related issues - an increase of 60% in a week. It's a similar picture throughout the region.

Last month, the hospital admission rate in 10% of the poorer areas was more than double the rate of that in the least deprived areas.

"If you look at all the postal areas in Northern Ireland where social deprivation is higher, they are more badly impacted from Covid," says data analyst Peter Donaghy.

As of last month, the Covid-19 death rate in the 10% most deprived areas (77 deaths) was two-fifths higher than the rate in the least deprived areas (56 deaths) and almost one-and-a-half times the Northern Ireland average.

In both the loyalist Shankill Road and the republican Falls Road, where an 800-metre concrete wall separates the two neighbourhoods, residents are sharing their concerns at the steep increase in the infection, which has made either side of the peace wall among the worst affected.

Within 24 hours, Fiona Vallely lost her west Belfast mother Isabel and father Christopher to coronavirus last March, leaving her and the rest of the family devastated. "We knew our mother couldn't live without our father, so I get peace that they died within hours of each other… they are together at least."

Vallely says the spread of the disease is "very scary and very real", and "a lot of ill people in that part of Belfast have been queuing outside chemists and need help".

"It's very bad now," agrees Gary Lenaghan, a community worker on the Shankill Road, "This a very socially deprived area. People are living on top of each other in these wee streets and it's not feasible for a family to sit in, because they need to put food on the table."


Protection: Dr Michael McKenna administers the vaccine to 94-year-old Eileen Lynch. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Protection: Dr Michael McKenna administers the vaccine to 94-year-old Eileen Lynch. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Protection: Dr Michael McKenna administers the vaccine to 94-year-old Eileen Lynch. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Lenaghan lost a friend to the disease last week and fears more will follow "as the figures are rising steadily", adding that "people who suffer from mental illness here are even tenser".

"I look after a wee woman in her 90s, I do her messages. She went to bed two days before Christmas and I still can't get her out of it. She doesn't want to get up in case she catches Covid," he says.

In some cases, families who have lost loved ones are even struggling to pay to bury their dead.

"There are families who have one or two family members dying from Covid in these areas and then don't have enough money to bury them. Where's the money coming from for the funerals?" he asks.

Childcare manager Deirdre Walsh, who lives in the Falls Road, spent five days in hospital having tested positive for Covid-19 back in March. The 57-year-old mother of two says she "never thought in a million years" she'd get the disease, explaining that her area of the city is "suffering greatly" .

"Since the first lockdown, people here have lost their jobs, there's a whole industry that has been wiped down in this area… a lot of hospitality work, bar work, hotel work has stopped. Domestic violence is a big issue and a lot of that is down to mental health issues." She says she is concerned about her community "and the long-term effects of the disease".

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, of Ulster University, says as well as Covid, "poverty takes no prisoners".

"The increase in Covid figures comes down to the need for people who are in poverty, living in a disadvantaged area, who have more human contact, depending on each other."

"People can no longer put on the track and trace app because they are having to isolate, and they need to work," she says.

"Covid-19 and social deprivation are killing people here," says Progressive Unionist Councillor and resident Billy Hutchison. "There are people who have educationally underachieved and are unemployed, there are people who are on their own with kids in damp houses and haven't got a penny. It shouldn't come as a shock that Covid is affecting those who are worse off."

On the Shankill Road, Dr Carla Devlin is seeing patients every day with symptoms of Covid-19 and says her patents are "living in challenging environments".

"They aren't able to socially distance, and have higher medical issues such as hypertension, heart disease, lung conditions and diabetes - all of which actually predicts a poor outcome for those who are infected with coronavirus."

The GP says "every single day" now her practice receives calls from people in the Shankill complaining of respiratory conditions and says, "those poor and vulnerable patients will bear the brunt of coronavirus but also the measures used to contain it".

It's a similar story for Dr Michael McKenna. The average lifespan for patients in his practice on the Falls Road is between eight and 10 years less than in a practice in south Belfast - three kilometres away.

"It's a big worry that the infection rate is increasing in the Falls and other areas. I don't know anyone who doesn't know someone who has had Covid," he says.

"People in this area die younger, but age faster. They very often present in their 60s more like an 80-year-old would present in a more affluent area. There's higher smoking, alcohol intake, and higher incidences of mental health issues. That increases the risks of getting more severe Covid illnesses, as we have seen," he said.

In a week where cancer surgeries in Belfast were cancelled due to the pressure on hospitals and 21 people died from the disease in one day - the highest daily toll since the pandemic began - there was more mixed messaging, delayed responses, and "frosty" meetings in the Executive whose leaders couldn't even pretend to put on a united front.

When UK Prime Minister Boris John announced a lockdown in England, a "knee-jerk meeting" of the Executive was called.

But there was no preparation or papers to set out proposals, options, and assessments "and without them, you can't have a meeting", said a source. Despite promises of "urgent action", the Executive dragged its heels on closing schools the next day, ditched exams on Wednesday - with days to go - leaving pupils, teachers, and parents at a loss, cancelled a meeting on Thursday and disagreed, again, on Friday.

In the middle of the chaos, healthcare workers learned they may have to wait for 10 weeks before receiving the second dose of Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine in response to the spiralling number of cases. Northern Ireland's Department of Health claimed this "will bring faster protection to greater numbers of people most at risk from the virus".

Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing, said "part of the problem with moving the goalposts so often is that there is very little trust left for nursing staff in the system".

"The past year has shone a stark light on what was already an unworkable system."

And so instead of sharing a platform last week to announce important public messages or respond to concerns, First Minister Arlene Foster stood in a car park in Co Fermanagh in the dead of night to deliver her remarks, while Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill struggled to be heard on live television in Co Tyrone because a group of little boy racers roared out loud as she spoke.

"Foster is doing the Executive meeting in her house, O'Neill is doing it in hers, then they are taking part in separate press conferences outside while trying to outdo each other. They haven't stood side by side in weeks," said a well-placed source privy to the Executive discussions.

Back in the Shankill and the Falls, residents are ignoring the noise at Stormont and are trying to get on with their lives by showing more leadership than those in charge.

Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey, who has been organising food banks to help those in need during the pandemic, says a lot of his neighbours have died from Covid-19 and argues that it "shouldn't have taken a pandemic to bring poverty to the forefront".

Standing looking at the imposing peace wall, McCoubrey describes it as a constant reminder of separation but adds that the two communities "are working together to make that wall disappear".

"They are making sure they are doing all they can to help and support one another at this time, and that's the positive thing to come out of all of this because, at the end of the day, Covid-19 doesn't care what you are," he says.