Less blame, little action for Europe’s Roma during second COVID wave

Romani people, Europe's largest ethnic minority, have been less stigmatised during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic but their social problems have seen little improvement. The EURACTIV Network reports. [Modfied from Shutterstock/vladm/M.Moira]

Romani people, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, experienced shocking levels of institutional racism and discrimination across the EU during the spring lockdown, including blockades and blame for the spread of the virus. Although they have been less stigmatised during the second wave, their social problems have seen little improvement. The EURACTIV Network reports.

In Italy, the second wave of COVID-19 hit Roma communities harder, increasing their social exclusion, said Carlo Stasolla, president of Associazione 21 Luglio, a non-profit organisation helping people and social groups that suffer from marginalisation.

There are around 20,000 Roma people living in camps in Italy, of whom 12,700 live in institutional camps recognised by the government, while the rest are in informal settlements.

Stasolla told EURACTIV Italy that the government did not change its approach to the problems faced by Roma communities between the first and second wave. Only small local initiatives were enacted, mostly to distribute food. There is no protection for those who lost their job or income, as well as no control of the health situation in camps.

The number of infections in Roma communities is unknown, as they are not tested and no information is provided to them on how to deal with suspected positive cases.

Continuing education has been a problem and Romani children were often the last  to be admitted back to school in autumn. Distance learning also made it difficult for Roma children to follow lessons, as there is often no internet in camps, so many children simply did not attend school.

The state chose “precipitous, not strategic actions,” said sociologist Gelu Duminică, executive director of community development foundation Agenția Împreunăm, adding that authorities have done very little for vulnerable communities, and even the measures that were adopted under the pressure from NGOs are not fully operational.

Duminică’s foundation works with 50 schools in Romania and none of them have received tablets to allow them to continue with their studies online.

“Before, they had a bad school, now they have no school at all,” Duminică said.

The issue of education is frequently raised in central and eastern Europe, with two reports by the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published on Tuesday (8 December) highlighting the need to increase efforts to integrate Roma children in Slovak and Czech schools.

In Slovakia, ECRI pointed out that Roma children often cannot attend pre-school and learn Slovak before entering primary school even though it often becomes their language of instruction, while in Czechia, Roma children are still disproportionately classified as “disabled” and a large proportion are concentrated in a small number of primary schools, hampering integration.

In spring the Romani people in Romania were often blamed by for the spread of coronavirus.

While only one in ten Romanians said that the Roma were the main culprits for the spread of the pandemic – compared to one in three who blamed the Romanian diaspora – the attitude towards the Roma community was hardly generous.

In the media and public debates, the Roma were often seen as the scapegoats

Although the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths is significantly higher in autumn than it was in the spring, the attitude towards Roma is more lenient, but disadvantaged communities are just as helpless.

“The panic is not as high. When the context is different, the reaction [towards the Roma] is not as aggressive either,” Duminică told EURACTIV Romania, adding that “when a lot of people break the rules, there is no need for scapegoats.”

But even if Roma people are no longer blamed for the epidemic spread, their economic situation is as desperate as ever.

Many Roma families are dependent on activities that have been almost completely blocked by the pandemic. “Activities such as the collection of junk or scrap metals, or day labour have decreased a lot. The fiddlers are totally out of work,” Duminică said.

The pandemic has affected mobility and has affected all individuals for whom mobility is essential in their work, including the nomadic Roma.

And the authorities do not seem to have learned their lessons from the spring, so the second wave of the pandemic found disadvantaged communities just as unprepared to cope withthe economic and social impact.

Local authorities do not seem to have learned from the spring experience, says Eniko Vincze, professor at the Babeș-Bolyai University and activist for housing justice at Căși Sociale ACUM! from Cluj-Napoca.

”Evictions were not prohibited. Adequate housing for people at risk of overcrowding or polluted environments was not provided. No plans have been made for the construction of social housing for 2021 either,” she said.

Vincze pointed out that Romania’s national plan, which member states will have to present to Brussels to access EU recovery funds, does not contain measures to improve the inadequate living conditions of the marginalised.

The situation is not limited to communities in remote rural areas. The long-documented situation of the 1,500 Roma citizens in Pata Rât, living in a landfill in Cluj-Napoca, remains uncertain, Vincze told EURACTIV Romania.

“No one from the government, neither local, nor county, nor central, thought during the second wave of the pandemic to respond to the needs of this community,” she said, adding that most families in the communities of Pata Rât live without water and toilets inside the house, without adequate heating and light..

Similarly, in Bulgaria, the second peak of the pandemic brought less severe human rights violations but deteriorating public health provision for Romani communities.

The police did not lead blockades of Roma neighbourhoods as they had in spring. At the time, local authorities justified their decision by saying that Roma communities refused to abide by the rules and went around in large groups.

In the autumn, measures to control the virus are significantly more liberal, however, the pandemic is exacerbating the already serious problems for the country’s Roma minority.

For example, most Roma do not pay health insurance and rely on emergency medical care, which is free. While this was feasible during the first wave, the health care system has now stalled and emergency medical care is overloaded and cannot take all those in need, leaving behind many Roma who work without contracts and insurance.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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