Anti-Gypsyism under COVID-19 Pandemic

COMMENTARY

By Serena D’Agostino (8 May 2020)

For those at the crossroads of racism and poverty, such as many European Roma, the COVID-19 pandemic acts as an amplifier of existing inequalities and discrimination. The coronavirus outbreak stunningly emphasizes the fragilities of our contemporary democracies. Current social and political structures are in fact proving inadequate to face the urgencies of those who live ‘on the margins’ of our cities, communities, educational, labor and health systems.  

“Roma people living in substandard housing and in segregated settlements across Europe are among the groups most vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic” – the Council of Europe states on the occasion of the International Roma Day on April 8. Systemic and institutional anti-Gypsyism is what makes destitute Roma particularly exposed to the many dangers this pandemic entails. Centuries of structural racism against the Roma have manifested in policies, practices and attitudes of oppression, marginalization and exclusion. Anti-Roma prejudice, discrimination and crimes have resulted in precarious housing and health conditions, deprivation, school segregation and extreme financial hardship. Generational poverty has thus become the rule amongst most Roma communities all around Europe. 

The current public health emergency has triggered intersectional discrimination against the Roma and has had particularly severe repercussions on their everyday lives. Deprived Roma are actually excluded from most of the policies for preventing the spread of the coronavirus enforced by European governments. Key precautionary measures can in fact be implemented by the mainstream population only. Social distancing and hand-washing are, for instance, impossible to put in place in overcrowded and precarious dwellings with limited access to running water and basic sanitation, often located in close proximity to toxic dumps. Such conditions occur in most Roma settlements and ‘camps’, both in Eastern and Western Europe, and put the Roma at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Similarly, teleworking, distance learning and on-line schooling are policy instruments that cannot be of use to marginalized minority groups living in poverty. By way of example, Roma children are particularly affected by school closings. Most of them do not have the necessary ICT tools (i.e. computer, internet connection) to attend the classes on-line. Thus, they no longer have access to formal education. Even when more accessible televised lessons are provided and TVs and electric power are available, remote education is often very difficult in congested and bustling one-room dwellings. Moreover, the closure of schools can represent a pressing nutritional issue, as it is at schools that the children of poorer Roma families often receive their only adequate meals. 

Across Europe, coronavirus scapegoating significantly targets Roma people. Human rights organizations and national equality bodies have indeed reported an alarming rise of hate speech and anti-Roma sentiment in several European countries, where the Roma are persistently blamed for spreading or causing COVID-19. Roma people who have returned to Eastern Europe from Western Europe after losing their sources of daily income due to the lockdown measures are repeatedly accused of having brought the virus home with them. Such allegations are not only spread by average non-Roma citizens. The Roma are labeled as a ‘threat to public health’ by both politicians and media alike. In some countries, such as Bulgaria, institutional scapegoating translates into special policy measures addressing only the Roma – for instance, setting up police checkpoints and/or erecting fences around Roma settlements to enforce quarantine measures and better control movements. Although the current circumstances allow for national and local authorities to enforce this kind of action, applying it selectively to people on the basis of their racial, ethnic and/or socio-economic status is an abuse of power that democratic societies should never tolerate. Even less so in times of a global health crisis, when the daily struggles of those at the margins further exacerbate.