SEATTLE, Washington — Spread across the European Union (EU), the Roma Travelers are considered the largest minority in the European continent, with roughly six million living in EU states. The Roma have a long history of suffering from racial persecution, leading to socioeconomic struggles that continue to this day. Unfortunately, the effects of COVID-19 on the Roma have only worsened these struggles.
Impact of COVID-19 on Romani Communities
The worst effects of poverty had plagued Roma communities even before COVID-19 had spread to EU countries. Roughly 80% of all Roma live in inadequate, overcrowded houses, largely in densely populated areas. Additionally, many have no healthcare coverage. While it has been a goal of the EU to create policies to promote Roma inclusion, racial discrimination and ignorance of their struggles by member states have led their economic problems to stagnate.
With conditions as poor as they were, the effects of the pandemic have affected these communities disproportionally compared to their neighbors. It is estimated 30% of Romani do not have access to running water within their homes. Without the ability to wash their hands at home, there has been concern over how well the Roma could potentially prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Racial discrimination has long plagued Roma communities throughout Europe, and the pandemic has brought about new cases of racial prejudice against the Travelers. The prevalence of anti-Romani rhetoric has steeply risen as officials and media outlets have promulgated false rumors about Roma spurring further spread of COVID-19. Governments placed disproportionate security measures on areas with a high Romani population as a result of these discriminatory beliefs.
Responses to the Pandemic
The Bulgarian government declared six Roma neighborhoods under lockdown prior to the confirmation of any COVID-19 cases in the areas. In addition to militarized lockdowns, drones sprayed neighborhoods with 3,000 liters of disinfectant. In Ireland, the Roma people had their freedom of movement restricted, leading to mass overcrowding in their camps. These communities regularly have more soldiers than healthcare workers in them due to these extensive security measures.
Officials intend for the security measures to protect the Roma people and those outside of their communities from the viral spread. However, governments have not reinforced the lockdowns with proper aid. Romani mostly work informal jobs. This excludes them from the support that has been going to those employed in the formal job market. Due to the nature of their employment, many financial institutions deemed their income as irregular. As a result, many Romani have been unable to apply for conditional loans or self-employment benefits.
Additionally, already faced with high rates of youth dropping out of school, Romani children struggle with remote learning. In Spain, for example, 40% of Roma children do not have internet access in their homes. Many students must rely on government broadcasts for their education. However, broadcasts are mainly meant for primary school students, excluding older children and teenagers from education.
Assistance and Further Actions
Organizations and countries have taken notice of the perils of the Romani and are working to alleviate the effects of COVID-19 on the Roma. France has invested €15 million to provide internet to neighborhoods with children unable to attend distanced classrooms. Slovakia has begun a social media campaign in the Romani language to raise awareness of preventative measures. Several other EU member states have formed social media networks to connect health mediators to Roma communities in need.
Even so, many relevant actors need to commit to further action. Governments must address more directly the discrimination that leads to the Romani’s poor economic conditions. There must be a concentrated effort to provide all Romani in the EU with health care, as well as economic support for those working outside of the traditional workspace.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed systematic issues that the Roma people face within the EU member states, as well as the prevalence of racial discrimination they have faced for centuries. While there has been a significant effort by the EU to help combat the inequalities they face, specific issues that increase the risk of poverty and the intensity of the effects of COVID-19 on the Roma must be addressed.
– Christopher McLean