Coronavirus pandemic deepens despair and danger for Europe’s Roma

Rights groups warn millions of Roma face increased risks amid spread of Covid-19

An old man sits outside a house in a Roma  neighbourhood under curfew in the town of Tandarei, Romania.  Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

An old man sits outside a house in a Roma neighbourhood under curfew in the town of Tandarei, Romania. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

 

Rights groups say the coronavirus pandemic and sweeping countermeasures against it are exposing millions of Roma to increased danger from poverty, social exclusion and sometimes violent prejudice.

Most of Europe’s 10-12 million Roma live in central and eastern Europe, where many have little or no access to basic services like sanitation, healthcare and education, and widespread discrimination means job opportunities are few.

Studies show that levels of overcrowding and health problems in Roma districts are higher than national averages across the region, making social distancing almost impossible in many areas and leaving Roma susceptible to the rapid spread of coronavirus.

At the same time, most of the casual work that Roma families depend on is incompatible with lockdown measures against the Covid-19 virus, and Roma children are less likely than their non-Roma peers to have the computer and internet connection required to study from home.

“Poverty risks, famine and racist violence pose a serious danger to the Romani communities and to the overall societies as well,” 12 Roma rights groups said in a joint statement on the pandemic.

“We call upon the national governments in the western Balkans and in Turkey, the European Union and individual EU member states to urgently address the situation of the Roma.”

Special control

In Bulgaria and Romania, police have introduced special control over certain Roma districts that are seen as potential Covid-19 hotspots, because many residents have recently returned from western European states that have high infection rates and because quarantine and social distancing rules are allegedly being flouted.

“What if the ghettos turn out to be the real nests of contagion?” Angel Dzhambazki, deputy head of the nationalist VMRO party in Bulgaria’s ruling coalition, has said.

Romanian police have sealed off the town of Tandarei in southeastern Ialomita county, to which many Roma returned recently from western Europe. Officials say 31 of Ialomita’s 48 coronavirus cases and seven of its eight fatalities were registered in Tandarei.

In Slovakia, meanwhile, military doctors have started testing residents of Roma districts following reports that some 1,500 Roma returning from Covid-19-affected countries had not stuck to quarantine rules.

Officials in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia insist the measures target coronavirus rather than any specific social group, but the issue is sensitive in countries where racist tropes link Roma with disease and crime.

“The majority of Roma depend on precarious work . . . as day labourers, collecting things for recycling, trading at markets – all kinds of work that they cannot do now. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of people in Europe with no income,” said Stephan Müller, an external adviser to the Central Council of the German Sinti and Roma.

“And we should never forget the danger of violence against Roma,” he told The Irish Times. “All it might take is a message on social media putting the blame on Roma for deaths from coronavirus in a village or town.”