The novel coronavirus pandemic and the Roma people
Yasmeen Cheema | 30 Jun 2021
The world is passing through an unprecedented crisis caused by an invisible entity which scientists refer to as SARS-CoV-2 or simply COVID-19. This novel coronavirus is fast changing the world as we knew it in the beginning of 2020. Humanity is witnessing upheavals in many domains such as economy, social, political and most importantly medical. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom has stated that no one is safe until everyone is; and this statement will hold validity till the day humankind wins the fight over this virus.
However, this virus, similar to any other problem, is exposing the fault lines in our society as well as widening and deepening the existing ones. One glaring example is the adverse impact on the Roma people who face discrimination and social exclusion in Europe. The word Roma refers to the community of peoples which includes Sinti, Kale, Manush, Dom, Lom, Romanichal and Travellers. In history, these people were referred to as gypsies but in modern times, this term has acquired negative connotations. The Roma are considered to be the largest ethnic minority in the European continent. It has been estimated that ten to twelve million Roma live in Europe among which six million reside within the European Union.
The Roma have been at the receiving end of unfair and unjust treatment for many centuries. A majority of them continue to live on the margins of society with little or no access to the basic necessities of life such as sanitation, security of housing and education. Despite several policies established by governments and European Union, there is still much work to be done towards the upliftment of the Roma population. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened their plight by pushing the Roma deeper into the clutch of poverty which coupled with discrimination leads to disastrous consequences such as limited or no access to vaccination health drives in the pandemic world as well as state run welfare schemes designed to tide over the people during the pandemic. An article from The Lancet states that the Roma are particularly vulnerable to the virus and have indeed been disproportionately affected by it. As early as April 2020, the Open Society Foundations noted that Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Spain have not responded with the proportionate attention towards the Roma people who face a much higher risk of death from the novel coronavirus.
It is ironic to observe that unlike the novel coronavirus which does not discriminate between Roma or non-Roma, human beings still continue to do so. Today’s pandemic ravaged world accords the utmost importance to the medical sector such as vaccination. The health systems of several countries in Europe are overwhelmed due to the ongoing pandemic which translates into greater risk of neglect towards the Roma who often do not possess the required documentation to avail the state run services. For example, those members of the Roma community in Italy who do not have the required papers cannot use the national health service which means no access to vaccines. The EPHA (European Public Health Alliance) which is an alliance of non-governmental organisations has called upon action for ensuring vaccine equity which will undoubtedly help the vulnerable communities including the Roma.
Studies estimate that life expectancy among the Roma populations is much lower than that of the general population with higher infant mortality. This is undoubtedly due to socio-economic aspects which have taken a downfall ever since the pandemic began. The basic COVID-19 preventive measures among which are hand washing and maintaining adequate physical distance are difficult to implement in the Roma settlements since a majority of the Roma in Europe live in overcrowded housing in not so hygienic conditions. As per the European Commission, thirty percent of the Roma do not have access to water. Undoubtedly, maintaining sufficient hygienic conditions to ward off the virus is not possible in such settlements.
Vaccine hesitancy among the Roma people adds another dimension. The level of literacy is low and coupled with digital illiteracy adds another challenge towards overcoming the reluctance to get vaccinated. There is deep rooted mistrust among the Roma people towards the government due to decades of mistreatment such as forced sterilisation of the Roma women. Prevalence of misinformation propaganda makes matters worse thereby adding another complex layer. Furthermore, many Roma reside in remote locations which cuts them off from mainstream society.
The pandemic has been witnessing a marked rise in unemployment levels which undoubtedly affects the employment chances of the Roma people. The European Commission acknowledges that there exists a high NEET rate (not in employment or education or training) among the Roma populations within the European Union. Therefore, the European Commission set an objective to reduce the high NEET rate by at least fifty percent. As per the June 2021 virtual round table held by the European Parliamentary Research Service on the new Roma framework, the NEET rate of the Roma populations is 62 percent which is quite high compared to the 10 percent NEET rate of the general population.
The lockdown caused due to the pandemic has paved the way for online education. The unfortunate aftermath is that the children and youth within the Roma population are getting left behind in their educational development due to lack of access to the internet and required technological devices. Furthermore, the pandemic is fuelling the prevailing prejudice and disinformation against the Roma and many countries have reported events of anti-gypsyism and scapegoating of the Roma populations.
The European Commission adopted the reformed EU Roma Strategic Framework in October 2020 which focuses on three horizontal goals of equality, inclusion and participation along with the four goals in domains of education, employment, health and housing. Additionally, the new framework sets European Union headline targets which includes a mechanism for data collection and analysis. Presently, there is, in general, a lack of verified and accurate data regarding the Roma population which is critical in implementing policies concerning the welfare of the Roma. The issue of uncounted and undocumented Roma is not new. This is bound to happen because of the trust deficit in the government as well as the systemic discrimination and negative representation the Roma population have endured for centuries. The pandemic has not only brought to spotlight the deplorable living conditions of the Roma people in Europe and the rampant discrimination they face but it also presents an opportunity for the governments and organisations to step up and fulfil their responsibilities towards them.