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Direct provision residents are terrified after being effectively imprisoned in packed rooms

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Hardship: Rooms at the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen are said to be overcrowded. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Hardship: Rooms at the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen are said to be overcrowded. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Hardship: Rooms at the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen are said to be overcrowded. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Exactly two months ago, my colleagues and I diagnosed a case of community-acquired Covid-19 in Cork University Hospital's intensive care unit.

The weeks that followed were surreal; filled with fear and uncertainty, but also full of decisive action by our long-maligned Health Service Executive and a caretaker government recently humbled in a general election.

While this has been positive and praiseworthy, it has served to highlight and confirm the Government's profound failings when it comes to those in direct provision.

Whatever your view on the system of direct provision, all nuances melt away in the setting of a widespread pandemic of a highly contagious airborne pathogen.

You do not need to be an infectious disease doctor to realise large groups of tightly packed people is a disaster waiting to happen.

There are some situations where high concentrations of individuals in one place are unavoidable; hospitals and nursing homes in some form or other, for example. We pay a brutally high price for this.

However, one high-concentration situation that is avoidable is that of direct provision centres.

We knew about the problem; it was widely flagged by a number of experts months ago as a potential, if not inevitable, disaster. Yet, here we are.

The ability to social distance was denied to these people.

This has resulted in a situation that is traumatising and inhumane for those in the centres, and represents a much wider threat to public health.

The current crisis is the result of a failure of our Government to act in a timely manner.

Reports from the ground make for difficult listening.

An official communication was issued mandating residents in the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen to stay in their overcrowded rooms except at specific allocated times to pick up food.

I have spoken to residents. People are stuck in tiny rooms, often with strangers.

They're terrified, having seen others get sick around them, wondering will they or their families be next.

Scant regard is given to people who were contacts and could potentially be infected.

Rooms are not cleaned to a proper standard when someone who is infected is moved out.

In the past two months, in so many different areas of government, we have seen bureaucracy and red tape swept aside.

I have seen disused hospital wards turned into full-spec ICU spaces and a transformation of inefficient structures into streamlined and dynamic ones.

On a wider level, our seemingly interminable housing crisis has been drastically mitigated. What we were failing to do for years is now being achieved in days.

With vacant accommodation everywhere, the Government could have improved the living situation for asylum seekers to align with public health requirements, thus avoiding outbreaks as well as providing safe accommodation for a number of essential healthcare workers currently living in direct provision.

Instead, it maintained the status quo in the knowledge that the current situation of outbreaks and public health endangerment was inevitable.

Somehow, largely maintaining the State-administered apparatus of direct provision was more important than the health of not only the resident individuals but also the towns and villages in which these centres exist. It's nothing short of a scandal.

A society is never judged on how it treats its most privileged or even its regular citizens, it is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

Currently our most vulnerable are effectively imprisoned and terrified in buildings with active Covid-19 outbreaks.

We have failed to provide a safe environment to these people while they await a decision on asylum.

In many ways, this reflects the wider failure of direct provision; a system that was supposed to be at most a brief stop-gap to ensure people's needs were taken care of while their asylum applications were processed.

At minimum, we need a dramatic reduction in density of people within direct provision.

Individual housing units should be sought where possible for families for the remainder of the pandemic.

Adults should be able to isolate without cohabiting with strangers.

Proper regard should be given to case-contact and disinfection protocols.

The current situation in direct provision was avoidable. It should make us question how we came to this. It should make us question direct provision itself.

Dr Eamonn Faller is an infectious disease expert at Cork University Hospital

Irish Independent