Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma and how to be prepared for the next crisis
Presentation during the High-level Conference launching the EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation until 2030 by Adriatik Hasantari, Roma Active Albania, Vice-chair ERGO Network (12 October 2020)
During August and September 2020, ERGO Network and its members conducted a survey on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Roma in seven EU Member States, and together with Roma Active Albania in six enlargement countries. Preliminary findings show that during the first wave of Covid-19, entire Roma and Traveller communities in all selected countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey) were deeply affected in all areas of life, including regarding basic needs, housing and accommodation, education, health care, employment, poverty, and freedom from discrimination and antigypsyism. Roma women were disproportionately affected, particularly pregnant women, mothers with young children and the elderly.
Our study confirms that in the early stages of the pandemic, many governments implemented unequal and unfair lockdowns of Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, despite not having any confirmed cases in these communities. Across all surveyed countries, Roma were faced with starvation after losing their income and the possibility to leave their houses to buy food. Our respondents reported that in general authorities did not provide them with masks, disinfectants and food while in lockdown or confinement.
In Hungary, children did not any longer receive previously offered free school meals, and had difficulties to learn at distance in the absence of school materials, digital equipment, electricity, or internet access. Because of overcrowding and inadequate housing conditions, many Roma families living in settlements were crammed in one single room with no means to follow preventive and sanitary measures. Our study confirmed that many Roma throughout the EU, Western Balkans and Turkey lost their jobs because of the lockdown, especially those working abroad who had to return home and did not benefit from state aid. Roma felt discriminated by the lack of action from state officials and service providers in the areas of education, healthcare, employment and state aid.
What lessons can be drawn to be better prepared for future crises?
The data collected by ERGO Network and other NGOs so far confirms without a doubt that the pandemic affected Roma and Travellers disproportionally, particularly those living in socially excluded and marginalised settings both within the EU and Enlargement countries. COVID-19 is an additional challenge to the daily exclusion and discrimination that they had already faced on a daily basis previous to the pandemic.
The pandemic revealed gaps in the approach of local authorities and governments to deal with vulnerable groups and with Roma. Exceptional cases may exist in some countries when it comes to humanitarian aid provided as one off measures. It was, however, mostly NGOs who stepped in to provide support on a regular basis.
If we learnt something from the first wave of Covid-19, it is that we simply cannot afford to be unprepared and to allow EU Member States and Enlargement countries to enter into a new crisis unscrutinised and without any concrete plans, measures and funding in place. Now more than even we need to think preventively and not reactively to what is in front of us. The EU and its Presidency have to put aside an investment package dedicated to vulnerable groups to support poor families, small and medium sized enterprises, and solo workers. The Directive for universal minimum income must be prioritised and accelerated.
The 2020 “EU Strategic Framework for Roma must be accompanied by a strong EU Council Recommendation demanding Member States to put a specific focus on humanitarian aid and a 10-year plan to fight structural racism and inequality at the centre of their policies and strategies, delivering basic services and infrastructure in Roma communities, viable solutions in the areas of education, employment, health, social protection and poverty, putting an end to forced evictions, segregation in education and housing, homelessness, hate speech, racist crime and police brutality – in order to guarantee a level playing field in the access to basic rights and services. It is clear that if we are to overcome this upcoming crisis, governments have to set higher targets and increase the scope of interventions beyond what it is in the new EU Framework, for all the countries.
The Fundamental Rights Agency has reported many times that Roma are the only European population living in absolutely inhumane conditions, in appalling and total housing deprivation. This resonates 10 times more during the Covid-19 pandemic. There should be no pretense that all governments must put their efforts into putting an end to segregation in housing, into providing running water, electricity and garbage collection. Governments must invest in safe and green housing, including social housing for all those living in shacks, shanty towns, unsafe and inhumane conditions.
All supposedly good intentions by the EU did so far not translate into specific funding for vulnerable groups under major post 2020 EU funding and programmes. This is a failure for the human rights agenda, as the coming decade could be the most challenging for all livelihood throughout Europe and across the world. Competing interests and challenges will yet again leave those vulnerable overlooked and at the margins. This needs to change. The EU needs to change its approach towards governments and lead Europe towards substantive equality where no Roma is left behind. All EU funding, with no exception, should by default target vulnerable groups and Roma, in line with the EU’s own principles and standards.
Anti-Roma rhetoric increased significantly during the pandemic, even blaming Roma for spreading the coronavirus. NGOs tried to warn policy-makers about the dangers of antigypsyism going unrecognised and unpunished. Instead of taking these warnings seriously, many governments curtail human rights of minorities during this crisis. The EU proved to be weak and powerless with its tools and enforcement mechanisms against discrimination and racial violence.
Going forward, the EU has to set a better example for governments and their duties to uphold the rule of law and human rights and be quicker and firmer in sanctioning racist governments.
Case studies: Experiences of Roma individuals and communities during the pandemic.