The hashtags Ačoven khere (“Stay home”), Beš khere (“Sit at home”) and Na vazden panika (“Don’t cause panic”) appeared on the internet immediately after the COVID-19 outbreak had been declared a pandemic and had prompted countries in the region to enter into a state of emergency.
The messages were subsequently shared by Roma activists on their social media profiles, while numerous organizations working with Roma community simultaneously began reorganizing their activities so as to put all efforts and resources into providing aid during the outbreak.
Unfortunately, it soon became evident that the initial enthusiasm and limited functional capacities of these organizations are not enough as the continuing struggle calls for the involvement of state structures.
Even before the virus had spread throughout the world, the Roma lived in very poor conditions. The coming of the pandemic has left them all the more hard-pressed — not in the least in financial terms — with a health disaster already looming.
Some might say that we’re all in the same boat, which is an undeniable fact. However, the Roma community are unable to respond to this crisis alone, and it’s doubtful it will receive the required support.
Already precarious position
As of writing this piece, over 370 people in Bosnia in Herzegovina have tested positive for COVID-19, over 780 in Serbia, 285 in North Macedonia and 106 in Kosovo (for the latest updates regarding the number of confirmed cases, click here).
Whether any Roma people are infected remains unknown, but what can be said with certainty is that this community is much more at risk compared with other groups.
Let’s start off with the essentials — access to drinking water, the first line of defence against the disease. UN experts have pointed out that the coronavirus cannot be stopped if vulnerable populations are not given safe access to clean water.
“As washing hands with soap and clean water is vital in the fight against COVID-19, governments worldwide must provide continuous access to sufficient water to their populations living in the most vulnerable conditions,” the UN has said.
The fact is that a large number of Roma communities in the region have limited access to water, if any. In many of these communities, there is only one water source available for the whole population living in the area (and it is often located outside the area where they live).
The first wave of panic — which made people frantically buy everything they could lay their hands on — saw the Roma stand by and watch in silence, being unable to do anything.
It is difficult to come by disinfectants or masks anywhere in the region at the present moment. Those who had the money to buy them did so in time. Although there is enough food, we can still see people stockpiling provisions without particular need.
Weeks have passed; as we are slowly coming to realize this is going to last much longer than we thought, the Roma are still standing by and watching in silence all the same, only now their bellies are completely empty.
At this point, they dread the prospect of having nothing to eat more than getting infected — the majority of Roma people work in the informal sector, most of them doing part-time jobs related to various services, cleaning or collecting secondary raw materials.
The prices of secondary raw materials are now plummeting due to lockdown, while the closure of marketplaces where the Roma work is leaving them with no opportunity to earn money. Few of these people have a permanent source of income and even fewer have saved up a certain amount of money.
Governments in the region have been engaged in the long-standing integration of Roma community with varying degrees of success.
Meanwhile — after years of work and spending funds — many members of this community continue to have their basic needs unfulfilled, including water, electricity, employment and health. In order for that to change, a substantial amount of money is needed, alongside a more substantial amount of political will.
The term “integration” itself has a fairly negative connotation in this context because it leads us to believe that Roma people somehow haven’t lived in this part of the world for centuries, but rather that they happened to come here only a few decades ago, and now we’re all of a sudden trying to integrate them.
The Roma have always been “the ones who live beside us,” never “the ones who live with us.” Society has built such a relationship with Roma that it has just accepted them living without water or electricity, which makes people think they have “developed resistance” to the cold, disease, hunger and every other thing that would have mowed down the “normal” people long ago.
At the same time, people remain convinced that every Roma person is gleeful, that they have a knack for music and that they aren’t keen on having to go to school or having a job.
When people began to figure out that around 15 million Roma — this being their total population in Europe — do live with them and not beside them, as well as that they die from disease far more often than others, they decided to integrate them.
A large percentage of these 15 million people live in the Western Balkans. On 5 July 2019, leaders from the region convened in Poznań (Poland) to sign a Declaration on Roma Integration, which foresees a set of measures aimed at improving the status of the community.
Countries taking part in this process are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, whose governments have pledged to work toward improving health, living, education and employment conditions for the Roma.
As noted above, one of the countries party to the agreement is Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government of which set up a national Roma Committee in 2002. An initiative has been launched by the body to have 300,000 BAM (about 153,000 euros) set aside from the Roma Health Insurance Fund — also created at the national level — for the purposes of providing housing for members of the Roma community.
However, as the formation of the state level government was long overdue (having come to fruition more than a year after the general elections that were held in October 2018), the national budget has yet to be passed, so for now it is likely that the Roma will remain out there on their own.
The most recent reports from the field show that the Roma people in the region are indeed more or less forgotten.
In Sarajevo — where I currently live — relief services are all but sporadic, with the notable exception of two municipalities — Ilidža and Centar — where local Roma communities were handed out 300 aid packages containing essential items by the municipal authorities.
As per preventive measures, North Macedonian movement AVAJA has organized discussions with three Roma doctors in Romani so that Roma people are offered information on risks and prevention in a way that is understandable to them.
An online campaign RESPECT has also been set to start in Montenegro. The aim of the campaign is to inform the Roma and Egyptian population about COVID-19, all in line with interim protective measures.
Nevertheless, a concrete response coming from state governments is yet to be seen.
It is beyond reason that there’s no solution for helping Roma people other than the one we’ll have to wait for. It turns out that it’s been like this for years — when it comes to Roma people, everything is on hold.
If we do not work out some sort of a viable solution as soon as possible, the Roma will be facing grave danger.
So far, we have no data on whether any Roma people have COVID-19. Even if one Roma person tests positive, the whole Roma population could be stigmatized by prejudice-filled societies like ours and thus wrongfully labelled as a potential threat to the entire community, much in the same way that a narrative about migrants as potential virus carriers is being constructed at this very moment.
Owing to the lack of data and other issues mentioned above, whole communities could be infected, many of them being located far away from the nearest healthcare facilities.
On the other hand, we cannot be certain that there is not at least one person in one of the numerous Roma communities across the region who has coronavirus. This information will be available only when people from these communities are tested as well.
In the meantime — as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response — the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has called for the governments of European countries to ensure that marginalized communities — including the Roma — have access to clean water.
“It is imperative that marginalized people in society are not left out of policies which are being implemented now to contain the spread of the virus,” ERRC said, adding that they will request the World Health Organization (WHO) to exert pressure on European leaders so as to have them guarantee equality for all people.
Be that as it may, under these circumstances, it seems that the real work is still ahead.
We need to understand that makeshift shacks are sometimes homes to several family members whose only source of income is picking cardboard.
We need to come to terms with the fact that — if we don’t do something about this — we’re bound to witness an even bigger disaster.
While we are waiting it all out, governments in the region are failing to come up with a solution for the Roma communities; everything we come to see and hear is just a consequence of a long-standing false paternalism.
Feature image: Courtesy of NGO Avaja.