• In Romania and Bulgaria, police have quarantined Roma communities often by force
  • Up to 12 million Roma live in Europe, mostly in the East.
  • Many Roma tend to live in conditions where coronavirus can easily spread

Europe’s Roma community are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, given their poverty, lack of access to health care, crowded living conditions, poor hygienic standards and general stigmatization.

The Roma, who number some 12 million and are concentrated in central and southeastern Europe, are colloquially referred to as “gypsies” by most westerners. They are believed to have originated in northwestern India.

Many Roma tend to live in cramped quarters in home with poor sewage systems and little or no clean water – conditions where coronavirus can easily spread. In such locales, ‘social distancing’ is next to impossible and ‘working remotely’ has no meaning for people who generally work in outdoor markets or sell their wares in public.

Now, in countries like Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, which have relatively large Roma populations, authorities have placed their communities under tight quarantines, sometimes through the use of police and military force.

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma warned that "right-wing extremist and nationalist politicians in Central and Southeast Europe would use the current [coronavirus] crisis to legitimize and implement their racist government action."

In Slovakia, Prime Minister Igor Matovic used the military to enforce virus testing in 33 Roma settlements, which are subject to quarantine.

"It is by no means a demonstration of power," Matovic said. "We just want to make use of doctors in uniform to start fast-testing in the [Roma] settlements without further overloading the regular health system. It is necessary for protecting people living in these settlements and also all the others who do not live there.”

But Abel Ravasz, the government's former emissary for the Roma communities, said the use of the military will only further stigmatize the Roma.

Marcel Sana, a Roma mayor of the Lunik IX borough of the town of Kosice, said: "More soldiers or policemen around are always viewed with concern in the marginalized communities. But that is exactly our task – social workers, NGOs and municipalities must explain to them that it is aimed for their protection."

Government officials suspect the speed of the virus spread in places with poor hygiene, like Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia, might mean it could reach 20 new cases for every infected person.

"We still have some 30,000 people with no access to water," said Peter Pollak, a Slovak Roma MEP.

Peter Marko, a general practitioner in Tatranska Lomnica, in eastern Slovakia, warned that the virus could spread quickly in Roma neighborhoods.

"If we do not find out quickly how many people in the slums are infected, it will become a ticking bomb,” he said. "People in the settlements will probably be distrustful initially – just as they were when we were taking tiny samples of blood as part of research of hepatitis C infection and they accused me of using them for business. But they are concerned about coronavirus so they will get to understand."

Marko also said that once a Rom dies of coronavirus, it could lead to an "unpredictable wave of panic.”

Slovakia has at least 100,000 Roma among its 5.5 million population and they have long suffered discrimination.

As of Monday, Slovakia had 534 coronavirus cases and two deaths.

In Romania and Bulgaria, police have quarantined Roma communities often by force.

In the town of Sliven, Bulgaria, police have set up checkpoints around the Roma enclave to restrict peoples’ movements

Georgi Borissov, a local Roma, finds these measures discriminatory.

“There is a problem [the virus outbreak] in this country, the whole country,” he said. “And then again they say ‘it is the Roma.”

Bulgaria has also cordoned off or imposed checkpoints in Roma settlements in the towns of Kazanlak, Nova Zagora and Roman.

Bulgarian officials insist such tactics are necessary because the Roma tend to flout or ignore rules on social distancing.

“I would say that coercion is needed in certain situations there, because we are obliged to protect the rest of the population,” Interior Minister Mladen Marinov said, referring to Fakulteta, a Roma neighborhood of 45,000 people in the capital, Sofia.

The mayor of Nova Zagora, Nikolay Grozev also defended special measures. “Residents were moving around in large numbers within the town after the [mass gathering, the] ban was introduced,” he said.

Angel Dzhambazki, member of the European Parliament and deputy leader of the nationalist VMRO party, urged the government to “close the ghettos everywhere.”

“What if the ghettos turn out to be the real nests of contagion?” he said.

Stela Kostova, head of the Sliven-based Roma Academy of Culture and Education, a non-governmental group, said the lockdown will prevent Roma from surviving

“There are people who make a living from collecting bottles and other objects from garbage cans,” she said. “Now they are not [even] allowed to do that.”

Bulgaria has an estimated 750,000 people Roma, more than one-tenth of the total population.

As of Monday, Bulgaria reported 549 coronavirus cases and 22 deaths.

In Shuto Orizari in Skopje, capital of North Macedonia, which is the only municipality with a Roma majority in Europe, all markets and stores have closed, putting hundreds of families without income.

Czech MP Frantisek Kopriva said: "Instead of seeking additional ways to protect these particularly vulnerable members of our societies as coronavirus spreads, some politicians have actively fueled anti-Gypsyism.”

Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office in Berlin, said Roma already face severe pressures in Europe,

"The majority society has not yet understood that unemployment among Roma is bad for the whole economy, and right-wing extremist attacks against Roma are bad for democracy," he said. "Now, it has to become clear that poor health conditions for Roma have direct and immediate consequences for non-Roma."

Hungarian Roma rights activist Aladar Horvath has asked the government for a kind of stimulus program for Roma.

"In the ghettoized areas, people have no savings, no provisions and no medical care. People are worried that they will soon not be able to feed their children," he said.