European Interest

European Roma: Forgotten victims of COVID-19

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Health, education and economic measures imposed by EU Member States during the COVID crisis have largely failed to protect Roma communities by not taking into account their extreme poverty and by not giving them priority in public health and vaccination strategies.

With 80% living in overcrowded settlements and dense neighbourhoods, often in households with no tap water and basic sanitations facilities and with reduced access to health services, Roma have paid a disproportionately heavy price during the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher mortality and hospitalisation rates than the general population.                   Economic measures and distance learning in schools, introduced by governments in response to the crisis, have often left Roma behind, leaving them without jobs or income and unable to follow education programmes.                                                                    With disinformation and prejudice against Roma on the rise, fuelled by overpolicing of their settlements during lockdowns in some countries, their scapegoating during the pandemic and increased isolation, the situation of Roma has further worsened.                           Such a lack of a proper response by governments and the absence of concrete measures on the ground will push Roma into deeper poverty and into a circle of disadvantage that could reach catastrophic proportions affecting society as a whole, revealed the EESC hearing “The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the Roma community: identifying measures how this can be addressed”.                                                                                              The event brought together EESC members, representatives from the European Commission and EU agencies as well as from civil society organisations advocating Roma rights. “Protection of fundamental rights should be universal and should not differentiate on the basis of one’s ethnicity or residential address,” said Alfredas Jonuška, President of the EESC Thematic Study Group on the Inclusion of the Roma, opening the hearing.                    “The COVID outbreak has increased long-standing exclusion, poverty and discrimination against the most vulnerable groups, including the Roma people who are the largest minority,” said Lavinia Banu from DG JUST in the European Commission.                               She presented several financial instruments which the Commission had proposed as an immediate response to the crisis to help the Roma community. These include the Coronavirus response initiative and initiative plus, which allow for a rapid deployment of resources or the Fund for the European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD).


Radost Zaharieva, policy coordinator for health inequalities and Roma health at European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said that overcrowded living conditions and lack of basic sanitation made it very difficult for Roma to follow the recommended health measures such as social distancing or self- isolation.                                                                            Since most Roma settlements are in polluted locations, such as near dumps or industrial sites, and often do not benefit from public services like rubbish collection, the risk of contamination and spread of the virus is higher. Living in fuel-poor houses makes Roma more prone to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, which also constitutes a risk factor for COVID-19.                                                                                                              “Despite the evidence of higher exposure to COVID19 and a link between social and health inequalities and COVID fatalities, Roma have not been prioritised in vaccination strategies. And lockdowns have further isolated Roma communities when support was most needed,” Ms Zaharieva said.                                                                                                  EPHA is pushing for health equity as an essential factor for advancing Roma equality, inclusion and participation. In 2020, it relaunched a revised European Charter on Health Equity to improve health and well-being for all and prevent unfair and avoidable health inequalities, Ms Zaharieva maintained.                                                                                   The Open Society Foundation recently issued a report entitled “Roma in the Covid-19 Crisis: an early warning from six countries”, in which it stated that COVID responses by EU countries were “speeding up a looming disaster for millions of Roma”. The report concluded that the disaster would affect not only Roma but also mainstream society and economies, “heightening interethnic conflict to a level not seen in the last three decades.”            Based on its analysis of the situation in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Italy, Romania, Spain and Hungary, the report concluded that these EU countries had not responded with proportionate attention to the much higher risk of death from COVID-19 in Roma communities.      “Health measures are inadequate for conditions of extreme poverty and are dependent on health insurance coverage, which many Roma lack. Soldiers, police personnel, and drones have been more present in Roma communities in some countries than have nurses, doctors, and medical supplies,” said Neda Korunovska from Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, who co-authored the report.                                                                                According to the report, 80 percent of Roma surveyed live below their country’s threshold for being at risk of poverty; about 30 percent live in housing without tap water and every third Roma child lives in a household where someone went to bed hungry at least once in the previous month.                                                                                                   Although national governments were aware of these conditions, they had not prioritised Roma neighbourhoods when distributing supplies of disinfectants and implementing disinfection measures. In some countries, testing for COVID-19 excluded a significant proportion of the Roma population as it was dependant on health insurance coverage. In Bulgaria and Romania, for example, only around half of Roma have health insurance.               Overpolicing and impunity of police abuse remains an issue, and has been especially exacerbated during curfews. In some countries, Roma settlements were put under quarantine by the military despite having a COVID-19 case rate of 1 percent, or under lockdowns that could not be justified by the number of cases, which has left the inhabitants without access to basic necessities.                                                                                                 Such interventions by the police and governments played into the hands of the far right, who launched disinformation campaigns against Roma, naming them as the main public health threat and culprits for the spread of the virus, which has only strengthened prejudice and anti-gypsyism.                                                                                             The crisis has also had a devastating effect on Roma workers as most of them work in the informal economy, arts and culture or in low-skilled and low-wage jobs which means they were not included in social and economy recovery plans, such as SURE, leaving them without jobs and any income during the pandemic.                                                             Inability to follow online classes has left more than half of Roma children out of school, threatening to increase the dropout rate of Roma students, already looming large at 68%.


The participants in the hearing pointed to the urgent need to implement concrete, immediate and long-term measures in the area of health, economy, education and disinformation, to halt the spiralling downward trend negatively affecting Roma life and rights. They also stressed the importance of working closely with Roma in their communities, providing hands-on support in which civil society organisations played a crucial role.                      Isvan Kvik, head of the Lithuanian Roma community, spoke about setting up business incubators for Roma people which would make it easier for them to find employment, as they are often not hired due to stigma and prejudice and not for the lack of skills.                   Mr Kvik is leading by example: he opened a unique Roma restaurant in Vilnius which managed to employ 17 people, including young Roma, despite very limited resources.       “Business promotion should be one of our priorities, people can only be happy when they contribute to the economy,” he maintained.                                                               Zuzana Havirova from the Slovak Roma Advocacy and Research Centre, stressed the importance of education, an area in which many Roma children took a step back during the pandemic. There are 70 000 such children in Slovakia alone, and most of them will repeat the school year, which is dangerous for their future.                                                     She put the emphasis on Roma children’s inclusion in the education system: “Children must be integrated into mainstream groups and not brought up in community centres without the presence of non-Roma children. Community centres must not replace systemic structures, and in no case can we create a parallel world for the Roma alone.”                Kumar Vishwanathan from the Czech NGO Life Together pointed to the importance of field educational and social work in Roma communities.                                                      “We have to go to segregated and marginalised communities and inform people about what is going on, about vaccines and their benefits,” Ms Vishwanathan said, adding that organisations like his need a lot of support for their valuable work.                                    Ahmed Ahkim from the Centre de Médiation des Gens du Voyage et des Roms in Belgium called upon the public authorities to take the needs of minorities and vulnerable groups into consideration as they were the first to be forgotten in times of exceptional crises. Another crucial task would be to fight anti-gypsyism which was among the main reasons why calls for solidarity fell on deaf ears when it came to solidarity with Roma.                                Mr Akhim’s organisation was actively involved in launching COVID information campaigns for travellers and Roma to keep them safe during the pandemic.                                Rafael Saavedra from Fundación Secretariado Gitano in Spain stressed the importance of human rights-based strategies in the communities and the vital role of civil society organisations in the implementation of measures.                                                                “Every measure must be planned and taken in collaboration with the NGOs – we know the reality and we can reach persons that the administration cannot. We have to be recognised and supported,” he maintained.                                                                                   Mr Jonuška concluded: “We urgently call on Member States to protect Roma rights to health, and to take account of the specific circumstances of Roma communities when applying emergency measures.”

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