News | Eastern Europe - Corona Crisis Slovakia’s Romani in the Pandemic

Chaos, neglect and persistent question marks


Social distancing, isolation: the frequently mentioned terms of the pandemic take on an even more bitter meaning when connected to the Slovakian Romani population, who have been living in socially excluded settlements on the peripheries of numerous Slovakian cities for years. Their already dire situation has gotten even worse in the past few months.

According to available resources, more than 6,000 people from the county’s 1,044 marginalized communities still remain quarantined in their villages. Two hundred of these villages count as the poorest. One of the prominent experts on the general health of the Romani population, anthropologist Andrej Belák, suggests that the overall number of Romani villages imminently endangered by the pandemic is now less than 600. According to data coming directly from the field, the government is not fully in charge of the situation and it unsystematically and on an ad hoc basis. As Belák says, the primary victims of the coronavirus are mainly elderly Romani people. Unfortunately, it does not come as a surprise that part of the Slovakian majority still tends to see them as a source and main spreaders of the infection.

Adéla Gálová is a journalist, translator, and cultural event coordinator. She has translated books from Hungarian, worked for the One World documentary festival, and managed Refufest—a multi-genre festival engaging local refugees. Currently she is part of the Hatefree Culture online platform team.

This is closely connected with the fact that only shortly after the pandemic started, many Romani families that previously travelled abroad to work (especially to the UK and other Western European countries) started returning to their original homes in Slovakia. These families have been the main target of the pilot testing designed to find out whether individual villages are a distinct primary source of infection brought from another country. The question nevertheless is not whether the people living in these villages are Roma; the main reason for concern was a high risk of the infection due to the local living conditions. By the end of April experts from the organization Zdravé regiony (“Healthy Regions”), a state-funded group, had a clear overview of more than 100 tested villages, of which infections were confirmed in 16, while only three of these villages had a larger number of infected patients. Although Zdravé regiony, which operates as a complementary support to the public health bodies, is—insofar as it can—trying to spread awareness about prevention, there is a real chance that the current situation is only the tip of the iceberg.

To Quarantine or Not To Quarantine?

The state has committed to quarantining only those communities where the number of infected among the population exceeds 10 percent. That is not known for the case of the villages, or more precisely, these kinds of data are still missing. Yet due to dissimilar intersocial organization within the settlements that places the extended family model at its core, the efforts to quarantine are not without reasonable grounds. That is, apart from the family community-based structure, the villages also have a different infrastructure with high population density and often lack basic sanitation.

With the transition to the market economy beginning in 1989, the former Czechoslovakian state ceased providing (somewhat paternalistic) services for disadvantaged social groups, which today is fragmented among individual nongovernmental, non-profit organizations. Financial responsibility was transferred to European funds and health care became individualized. The regions have lost their state-appointed experts who took care of issues such as health prevention or water. Individual responsibility for one’s own health continues to be a privilege of only a segment of society—the rest have to do with lack of information and resources.

Thus, according to Andrej Belák, preventing the spread of infection in the villages poses a serious riddle. As for the Romani themselves, they are naturally most concerned about what will happen to them in the current situation. On the one hand, questions concern basic logistical issues such as how to get groceries or medicine, how to inspect and self-inspect the villagers, and on the other, how to effectively spread awareness among the Romani population. Currently, the state of individual families is rather alarming—some are even close to starvation, as the crisis broke out only a few days before locals were to receive their monthly benefit payments and it remained uncertain whether they would be able to pick them up. Moreover, since the pandemic began, complaints have emerged in various regions concerning rising tensions between the majority and the Romani, who increasingly face situations such as being ejected from local markets, etc.

Drones and Helicopters

The necessary support continuously remains in the hands of the nongovernmental organizations and has two major—health and humanitarian—aspects. At present, the organizations put all of their efforts in trying to manage and distribute the specific roles among their members. It is unrealistic to think they could accurately map the state of the contagion in a short time period. As Belák suggests, a different kind of intervention is needed in the case of the villages, such as installing sanitary checkpoints by the entrances and exits. The state nevertheless does not have sufficient capacities to guard all of them. At present, five villages in the area of Spiš and one in the area of Zemplín are under so-called “collective quarantine”, and there are 2,400 soldiers in the field. The Slovakian Army can deploy a maximum of 8,000 individuals, which would mean enough to place 20 settlements under quarantine. Many nongovernmental organizations and some of the media view the involvement of the Slovakian Army as unjustified and potentially intimidating for the Romani.

The fear of “soldiers” is also reflected in some of the hoaxes circulating among Romani, which should not come as a surprise considering their historical memory. More or less all previous regimes deployed some kind of intimidation or persecution of the Romani by armed forces. Helicopters and drones flying above the settlements thus make a threatening impression. Nevertheless, as both experts and some local inhabitants say, the military is treating them with respect, sometimes even empathically.

Linda Pačanová comes from the village of Bystrany—one of the biggest Romani settlements in the area of Spišská Nová ves, where the epidemic has so far been dealt with successfully. “There were nine sick people in our village”, she told us, “but all of them strictly followed the quarantine rules and presently we only have negatively tested people. In general, they have tested about 800 locals, the army came here every day”, she said, adding that the quarantine in Bystrany in the end only lasted 16 days. “The soldiers guarded us so that nobody could run off, but their behaviour was nice.” She cannot help but express her pride: “They even mentioned us on television, when they said that Bystrany is a good example for all of Slovakia.” Nevertheless, some of the quarantine precautions arouse legitimate concerns about unnecessarily isolating the infected together with the healthy.

Romani Die Younger and Earlier

Poor health conditions in the villages are nothing new—in fact, locals have been battling health issues since the political transformation of the 1990s. Some of the infections such as tuberculosis or syphilis tend to come back repeatedly, yet there is still a prevailing, rather obscurantist belief among the majority population that the Romani are “naturally” healthier and more resistant to disease.

As Andrej Belák explains, this kind of misinterpretation is easy to connect to the fact, that especially the local infants make a relatively “healthy” impression despite their living conditions. This can nevertheless be explained by the fact that a child’s organism and immunity, inflicted by different sorts of extremes, simply does not have enough energy to respond directly to heavy infections, as it would come at the expense of other important things such as growth. For that reason, the consequences can be seen only later in adulthood, which is also the reason for the rather bleak average life expectancy. Compared to the majority of the Slovakian population, the Romani live over one decade less. Proof of such discrepancies, however, is only reflected in academic studies and NGO research, as the state refuses to deal with them despite being obliged to do so by EU European legislation, and although this issue represents a fundamental component of the Romani inclusion strategy.

Another huge player in the health situation of Romani communities are so-called “social determinants”, which are traditionally the consequence of different social processes in the history of the ethnic group. Numerous factors such as discrimination, racism, or spatial segregation reflect on the final outcome, including different forms of apathy or voluntary segregation by the disadvantaged groups involved. It unleashes a vicious cycle of different factors impacting one another (e.g., bad health can be an obstacle to work or schooling, etc.). This complex web of factors and consequences is called “multidimensional social exclusion”.

Romani as Active Participants

How to deal with the alarming situation of the socially excluded localities in the near future? Belák suggests implementing the idea of so-called “green” and “red” zones. The former would mean isolating the most at-risk individuals who have already tested negative for COVID-19. In the red zones, those isolated would be the already infected. Nonetheless, it is now certain that most of the excluded Roma are increasingly dependent on outside help. As Belák emphasizes, this does not concern only passive recipients. Many Romani together with NGOs and some of the municipalities already actively engage in self-help activities such as sewing and distributing facemasks or helping to organize social distancing.

Linda Pačanová confirms these efforts: “We’ve got local patrols made of local Roma, our mayor František Žiga has been helping a lot as well”, she states. “At the municipality, we’ve had mobile shops where we could buy groceries or medicine, the wood used for heating was provided to us by our social workers.”

However, the basic and probably most essential recommendation for now is to plan and realize all the activities in the villages while continuously taking into account all the detailed information on the local contexts, which can vary significantly in each locality. Even more importantly, the target group should be invited to participate in all measures taken, including planning and evaluation. Participation “from the inside” is a guarantee of both the interventions’ ethical legitimacy as well as practical effectiveness, as it brings not only closer access to the local context, but also increases the interest of the Romani themselves.