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Covid-19 inflicts added affliction on the deprived Roma community in Europe

The Roma gypsies have been discriminated for centuries in Europe (Photo: Sandeep Kumar/Wikimedia Commons/flickr)

Mohammed Zameer Anwar

Roma People—the largest ethnic minority of Europe are the most disadvantaged and downtrodden community, affected by abysmal poverty and historical social exclusion. The outbreak of the coronavirus has alienated them further and heightened the discrimination against them. They face a much higher risk of death from COVID-19 as they fell between the cracks for want of health insurance coverage. Not to speak of vaccination, even the testing for COVID-19 is conditioned on health insurance in several countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Spain.

The mortality rate within the community is proliferating across Europe and among the Serbian Roma is reported to be as high as 26 per cent. 

In Greece, more than 50,000 Romani people out of 230,000 (EU estimates) — do not have a social security number; therefore, they do not have access to the public health system, so cannot be vaccinated. Many Roma in almost every member state of Europe are uncounted or undocumented on account of perpetual racism, long-drawn-out segregation, discrimination, negative representation and stigmatization have suffered for centuries.  

The trust deficit in public institutions is also giving rise to a great deal of vaccine hesitancy as well as prompting many Roma across the continent to refuse the vaccine. The digital ignorance and illiteracy are another problem slowing down vaccination within Roma communities. They do not always possess devices with internet connection in camps and settlements which are in remote and isolated locations. However, there are no reliable statistics on the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths among Roma community either at the EU level or from individual member states.

Roma Gypsy wagon, Grandborough Fields (Photo: Andy F/Wikimedia Commons)

Conforming to the personal hygiene recommendations is also questionable. Forty per cent of Roma have no sanitary facilities in their dwellings. In some of the member states of European Union, up to 80 per cent of Roma live in cramped, overcrowded settlements and squalid neighborhoods, which make physical distancing almost impossible. Europe being the richest continent on earth, where 80 per cent of Roma live below their countries' threshold, and 30 per cent live in housing without tap water, and every third Romani child lives in a household where someone went to bed hungry at least once in a day (the report by Open Society Foundation).

The socio-economic contingency caused by the pandemic is more severely affecting Roma, contributing to further inequalities. For instance, digital education or online remote learning is will-o'-the-wisp for impoverished Romani children, lacking desktops, android mobile sets, internet connection or sometimes even electricity. Many Roma living in segregated settlements find themselves cut off from the source of income and (formal or informal) economic activity, leading to the spiraling unemployment and poverty.

The political measures, taken by the Governments owing to COVID-19 pandemic, have led to an unprecedented freezing of Roma's economic life. Most of them in several European countries eke out their livelihood by collecting junk, recyclables and plastic or vending in street markets, which have been closed.They are unable to deliver services in local markets or small enterprises and not able to carry out the seasonal or temporary works because of lockdown. The second source of their income is music, as the consequences that led to the closure of all kind of places such as theaters, restaurants, festivals and so on where Romani artists used to perform. According to report by European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, it is estimated that 70 percent of Roma who earn a living from the arts and culture industries are not able to cover their basic necessities. 

Covid-19 has exposed the anti-Roma system including administrative structure and failure in the implementation of policies for social inclusion of Romani people. The violation of most basic human rights of Romani people like rights to food, education and housing is the order of the day. At several towns and villages in various European countries, Roma have been considered to be virus carriers, despite that the Governments are phlegmatic in clamping down on the stigmatization of the community. The reported cases of scapegoating the Roma and ethnicization of the Coronavirus crisis across Europe are even more disturbing.

The flag of the Romani people (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the governments have resorted to over-policing or disproportionate use of force. The police checkpoints were set up for monitoring the movement of Roma in several Roma’s settlements. Even some municipalities in Bulgaria used drones for monitoring and control of Roma’s movement. The police brutality in form of attacking Romani settlements is normal phenomena in Europe in this crisis time. There is a recent incident of police brutality in Czech Republic where a Romani man Stanislav Tomas died after police knelt on his neck for more than six minutes.  

The shortage of food compelled the most vulnerable Roma to break the quarantine that endangers their access to social aid and exposes them to police abuse, particularly in Bulgaria and Romania. They are completely excluded from the mainstream coronavirus-response related to social protection. Without an income or social support, thousands are left without the means to purchase food. World Bank data show that food security remains a concern for the poorest Romani households since the outbreak of the pandemic.

With no savings to compensate the loss of income, spawned by pandemic, many Roma have been rendered unemployed and bankrupt that forced them into deeper poverty. Most of the Roma are informal workers and emigrants, so not covered by social welfare and are not eligible for unemployment benefits. None of the European Union countries are taking any concrete measure to support Romani workers in precarious situations or those who worked in the informal economy.

The pandemic crisis gave the opportunity to Roma to get united and help one another. A number of initiatives, taken by Romani NGOs, organizations and individuals, provided crucial support to families in need much sooner than states did. Roma from Western European countries in Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and others are offering financial support to the Roma of Eastern European countries especially Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia and etc.

Prior to COVID-19 crisis, Roma were shoved to the margins of society and vulnerable position because of inter-generational poverty, but now they experience further acute deprivation, discrimination, harassment and vulnerability. Racial discrimination has long afflicted Roma communities throughout Europe, now the pandemic has brought about new cases of racial prejudice against them. Some Romani organizations and countries have taken notice of the perils of the Roma and are working to assuage the impact of COVID-19 on the Roma.

Nonetheless, many relevant actors need to commit to further action. Governments must address more directly the discrimination, health issues and worst economic conditions of Romani people. There must be a concentrated effort to provide Roma in the EU Member States with adequate health care, as well as humanitarian aid and economic support for those working outside of the traditional workspace.

The writer is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Roma Studies and Cultural Relations, Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad-ARSP (Indian Council for International Co-operation)