SEATTLE, Washington — The Romani are a minority ethnic group with about 12 million people worldwide. Around 10 million of them reside in Europe. Romani people have consistently experienced social exclusion and oppression throughout their history. Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no different. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Romani communities in several ways.
4 Ways COVID-19 Impacts Romani People
- Romani living conditions create a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. About 80% of Romani in Europe reside in overcrowded and densely populated areas, which makes effective social distancing a challenge. Moreover, adequate sanitation and hygiene pose difficulties as two-thirds of households lacked running water, and more than half lacked proper sewage in 2017. These poor living conditions are the products of both widespread poverty among Romani and institutional discrimination. Due to the exclusion and prejudice against Traveller communities throughout Europe, 43% of Romani people have reported discrimination while buying or renting a home.
- Poor healthcare plagues the Roma population. Unsanitary and unstable living conditions already put Romani health at risk, resulting in shorter life expectancies and higher rates of contagious diseases such as measles, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Romani people at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their vulnerable health conditions. Furthermore, they also have inadequate access to necessary treatment. Many are not a part of the formal economy and lack welfare benefits. In fact, as few as half of Romani have access to health insurance in some nations. They are also less likely to access healthcare services such as vaccination services, primary care and preventative care due to institutional mistreatment and language barriers.
- Romani people face a heightened risk of discrimination and institutional abuse. The European Roma Rights Centre’s report on human rights violations during COVID-19 details how Romani people “were being brutalized by racist police officers, forcefully evicted from their homes, scapegoated by the far-right, denied equal access to healthcare and left out of emergency policy-making.” The European public already harbors feelings of distrust toward Traveller communities. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed citizens and government officials alike to blame Romani for supposedly spreading the virus. Moreover, law enforcement officials have used excessive force on Romani accused of breaking quarantine and social distancing procedures with several cases of beatings and the use of tear gas.
- Romani face inequality in the education system. In 2019, “68% of Romani left school early” and only 37% of Romani youth are in the education system. Furthermore, schools worldwide have had to transition to online learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This presents a problem for Romani students. In the United Kingdom, merely 38% of Romani have internet access in their households and 20% have never used the internet. This trend of digital exclusion is present throughout Europe. It may force Romani students to leave school at even higher rates.
NGOs and Activists Advocating for Romani Rights
Several NGOs throughout Europe have spoken out in support of the Romani people during the COVID-19 pandemic. A coalition of NGOs, including eduRoma and the Romani Advocacy and Research Center, condemned the Slovak government for closing down entire communities in response to outbreaks of the virus. The NGOs argue that government measures were extreme and discriminatory against Romani since only 31 out of 1,000 people tested were positive for COVID-19.
The European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network (ERGO Network) similarly called attention to the poor living conditions of Romani communities and pressured the European Commission to tackle the spike in exclusion and discrimination. ERGO Network has been advocating for Romani rights and inclusion in policymaking since 2008.
International Roma activists have similarly used its platforms to advocate for the Romani communities in their respective countries. Halyna Yurchenko is one such activist who discussed the challenges of discrimination against Romani in Ukraine and mobilized humanitarian aid to families whose livelihoods were threatened by the pandemic.
The Romani people have faced unending challenges. COVID-19 is only making things worse. Though their struggles are historically-rooted and ever-present, substantial international and inter-community support is driving the movement for Romani equality.
– Neval Mulaomerovic