Challenges of Roma Communities During COVID-19
The Covid-19 virus has highlighted the differences between social classes. The effects of the virus were first felt among the poor. According to the 2011 census data in Hungary, more than half of those in deep poverty declared themselves as Roma. This data shows that Roma are disproportionately represented in the poorer sections of society. As a result of this, several civil society initiatives have been launched to help Roma in disadvantaged neighborhoods to mitigate the damage caused by the epidemic. In Hungary, Roma rights activists are taking action and seeking out opportunities to help support these communities. These people need immediate help, as most of them lost their job because of the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19. One example of this is József Radics. He formed the Országos Roma Civil Tanács ‘National Roma Civil Council’. This organization reacted quickly to an unprecedented situation, and they created a nationwide donation delivery service. They try to help those in need by delivering food and home-made masks to prevent infections. In less than two months (March, April) their volunteers visited more than 300 villages and helped about 3000 families.
“With far-right groups on the offensive, government complicity, and hate speech again Roma and other minorities widely in evidence, and EU justice and human rights principles under attack across the continent, much more attention needs to be paid to each incident of anti-Roma violence, both to counter the immediate impact of intimidatory messaging and as early warning signs for potential future atrocities.”Jacqueline Bhabha and Margareta Matache
The global health crisis caused by Covid-19 will also have a strong effect on the economy. With many countries shutting down non-essential businesses, reporting high rates of unemployment, and people going out less frequently, economies worldwide will take a hit. This has a strong effect on vulnerable groups such as the Roma. The rate of starving Roma families is increasing. While some governments have provided food packages to these vulnerable communities, it is not a sustainable solution. More and more Roma families are going hungry because of Covid-19, and with the lack of current systemic response, this trend may continue to grow.
Disadvantaged Roma communities live on the edge of society in Europe. Our community’s exclusion is also reflected in our access to health care. In most countries, we face discrimination in hospitals and in treatment by health professionals.
The life expectancy of the Roma is spectacularly shorter compared to other social groups. Compared to the major population, Roma’s have higher rates of mortality and illness. Roma populations have, on average, a life expectancy that is 5-20 years shorter (European Commission 2014). This is the result of poor housing conditions, a lack of access to a varied diet, and the hard-physical work our community usually does. The Covid-19 virus can be particularly dangerous for people with weak immune systems, including poor Roma communities. A vaccination against Covid-19 is not yet known, so professionals are calling for protection. Adherence to the necessary rules of defense is almost impossible in segregates where people live near each other. Their apartments often have a lack of running water, which makes regular hand washing difficult. Roma communities are often scapegoated and accused as transmitters of illnesses.
“…Roma population, highlighting overcrowded living conditions, poor sanitation, limited access to public utilities as predictors of rapid spread of disease.”Sarah Zawacki, public health researcher
Limited hygiene opportunities in the segregated slums are well known. Many of the Romani communities live in vulnerable conditions and suffer from “environmental racism.” Household waste can easily congregate as its removal is often not provided in poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, there is a lack of running water, electricity, and safe heating systems. The Roma settlements are often in polluted wastelands, next to landfills, and in different locations where they were pushed out of the cities. Roma homes are often overcrowded because multiple generations of families live together as a result of housing poverty.
Similar to other countries, in Hungary, electric poverty makes it difficult for children and young people to get involved in temporary online education. The problem starts with a lack of power, but they also do not have electronic devices or internet access. This can further increase or cause the Roma children to drop out of school.
In Hungary, some schools reopen their doors to students. Both children and parents will rely heavily on the goodwill of teachers in the upcoming result of the children at the end of the year. And also, in the case of students, how they fit the requirement of online education. Most of the students will probably need a supplementary exam at the end of August.
Unstable economies and policies caused by epidemics often result in stigmatization of certain groups of society. As a result of Covid-19, Roma are often attacked based on stereotypes and prejudices. Disadvantaged Roma communities face not only fear of the virus but also society’s suspicion that we are dangerous and infected.
News about Covid-19 has been received by many through online articles, television, and public statements. Information about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has been repeated across the media- wash your hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask. Technology allows many people to communicate and spread information effectively, but what about communities without power, without internet, and without full comprehension of the majority language of the area? For hundreds of thousands of Roma, this is the case. Finding information about Covid-19 has proven to be difficult, and has the potential to have devastating effects on poor Roma communities.
Following the death of George Floyd has been an eruption of protests across America, as well as Europe, about police brutality and Black Lives Matter. These protests have brought to light the many instances of institutional and systemic racism present against Black lives. From this, many parallels are visible among different minorities, Romani included. The issues of police brutality can be seen in Europe against us, likewise, the unproportionally high rates of unemployment and housing in Roma communities are being brought to light. Through this, we continue to be vocal against racism and fight for our Roma communities in the midst of discrimination.
The COVID-19 epidemic has an effect on everyone, but it affects marginalized and minority groups like the Roma in a multitude of ways. As aforementioned, different facets of the effects of COVID-19 include negative economic effects (especially among small businesses), an increased health issue, increased segregation, hate, and poverty, and an ineffective spread of information. The Roma are being hit hard by this virus, and that is making systematic and institutional issues surrounding the Roma more visible. The Roma, nonetheless, are resilient people who are banding together to support one another. Roma have been helping with the epidemic by making thousands of masks, showing support for frontline workers, spreading positivity through music and art, and financially helping one another when possible.
Several countries have begun to ease restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic. The difficult economic situation in which people find themselves after the restrictions can easily result in the strengthening of extremist ideologies. The Roma communities were scapegoated during the virus, and it won’t stop after the restriction is eased. For example, in Hungary, hundreds of football hooligans demonstrated in the city center of Budapest. It was proclaimed as a commemoration for two young people who had died in a street fight a few days earlier. They suspected that the perpetrators were Roma, and strong racist remarks were made at the demonstration. One of the extremist parties (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom) embraced the event and used it for its own political purposes. They were misleading people and taking respect from the victims. Anti-Roma slogans were sacked at the demonstration, among them Gypsy-criminality, which expresses people’s hatred of the entire Roma community in Hungary and declares all its members criminal. Days before the far-right rally European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) warned the Budapest police about the planned march, but no attempt was made to prevent the event from the police side, and even later when the demonstrators used openly racist expressions they still not disbanded the event. This hate is fueled by the complicity of Hungarian political leaders and on the anti-Roma structural violence being perpetuated in Europe. This exclusionary and stigmatizing behavior cannot be tolerated under any virus.
It would be necessary for political leaders to step up next to marginalized groups and not give space for hatred. One ethnic group cannot be the culprit collectively and cannot be accused of economic and mental hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even in the midst of COVID-19, Roma and Sinti persons in Germany are fighting for representation and fighting against erasure. The “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism” is being threatened by the railway company Deutsche Bahn. They are planning to build a line under the memorial. For this to happen, the memorial will have to be at least partially removed, and it will not be accessible for years. This is an awful act, especially considering that Deutsche Bahn is the successor to The Reichsbahn, a railway company that deported forced labourers to Germany, and transported people to death camps in WWII. Roma, Sinti, and allies of this cause are uniting under the mission “Out of respect for the up to 1.5 million Roma and Sinti murdered in Europe! Show your solidarity, take part and fight with us for the memorial – no matter where, no matter how – by any means necessary!” Roma, a demographic that has been unequally subject to COVID-19 is still standing in solidarity. For years we have been speaking out against empty commemoration and erasure. We must continue to question history and fight for truthful remembrance.
Robert Filep, a Hungarian Roma father of four recently lost his job due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He was employed on a day-to-day basis and because of this, he is ineligible for state benefits. “I have zero reserves” Filep, told Reuters “I get no social or unemployment benefit, or any kind of support. I have absolutely no income.” Now his electricity meter is running low and the food in the fridge for his family and himself is in danger of rotting soon. The Covid-19 pandemic is impacting everyone, especially hitting hard against those of us in Roma communities. Nevertheless, we are resilient. We must continue to support each other and stand together in solidarity in the fight against the pandemic and against racism.
Written by: Georgina Laboda and Becca Hartgraves
Diverse Youth Network