Coronavirus ‘disproportionately impacting’ Ireland’s Roma community

Death of Roma man last week ‘created a lot of distress’ among community

File photograph showing people gathered to mark International Roma and Traveller Day. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

File photograph showing people gathered to mark International Roma and Traveller Day. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The coronavirus pandemic is “disproportionately impacting” Ireland’s Roma community, many of whom live in overcrowded settings where social distancing and self-isolation is impossible, support groups have said.

The warning follows the death of a Roma man last week who contracted the virus - news which “created a lot of distress” among the community, says Marianna Prontera, co-ordinator of Pavee Point’s Roma programme.

All the previous challenges Roma people experienced before Covid-19 – including no access to social welfare for some, overcrowding in homes and fear of discrimination and racism – have just become more enhanced during the pandemic, Ms Prontera said. Many families cannot access sufficient food or basic items such as nappies and milk for newborn babies, she added.

A dedicated phone line with information on Covid-19 has been set up by Pavee Point, the Capuchin Centre and Cairde with the support of the HSE to avoid the crisis “further exacerbating the marginalisation of Roma”, she told The Irish Times.

The key to spreading health advice on the virus among Roma groups is using word of mouth, says a member of the Roma community working with the Mendicity Institution who preferred not to be named.

News that a Roma man in his 40s had died of the virus spread quickly last week, she says, however, many people still underestimate the danger of contracting the disease. Elders in the community have started to meet to discuss the issue which, she hopes, will help disseminate information on Covid-19.

“Most people are sticking to the restrictions but if someone is sick or presents symptoms they may not go to the doctor straight away, they tend to ring relatives and consult with each other,” she said. “Yes, I am worried about deaths. It’s up to everyone to play their part. We are human beings and should obey social norms like everyone else. It’s important we help to stop the spread.”

One major issue is large Roma families, including cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, tend to live together in overcrowded houses and apartments, says Louisa Santoro, chief executive of the Mendicity Institution.

“We’ve heard of people living in settings of up to 30 or 40 people in a building. If you’re renting a three bedroom flat it’s unlikely to be confined to parents and children. Roma have a much wider definition of immediate family.”

The charity is using visual aids to help Roma people who may be illiterate to understand the HSE health advice and restrictions.

“The Government’s response to this crisis has been incredible but they are not going to have the right policies for every nuance of our society,” said Ms Santoro. “We need to be really agile in the provision of services for particular groups – we’re even looking at access to showers and laundry for some people.”

For many of Ireland’s most vulnerable, social distancing and self-isolation are simply not an option, says Noel Wardick, chief executive of the inner city Dublin City Community Coop.

“Social distancing is a privilege, self-isolation is a privilege,” says Mr Wardick. “We might think it’s a pain and an inconvenience but if you can social distance it means you have a house to do it in. You have access to water and food and an IT system. You can go online and speak to family.

“So much of the HSE messaging is dependent on families living in a three-bedroom house with multiple rooms and access to a garden. Your ability to deal with the virus is without a doubt based on your social status prior to this happening. There’s a huge class element to this.”

The co-op is working to ensure Roma people laid off from their jobs as a result of the crisis receive their full entitlements, he says. However, like all groups working with Roma people, Mr Wardick is deeply worried about the health of the small community of 5,000 people during this pandemic.

“All the people we work with were highly vulnerable prior to this crisis. They were marginalised before but now they’re more exposed. It’s just about making sure their vulnerabilities are slightly lessened.”