By Bernard Rorke Brussels, euoberver.com
As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc across Europe, and citizens are urged to self-quarantine and wash their hands with soap and warm water, what if there’s nowhere to hide, if you live in an overcrowded site or shanty-town, and if you don’t have access to clean water and sanitation?
This is the plight of hundreds of thousands of Roma in many EU member states.
Last week, Irish Traveller rights activist Dr Sindy Joyce tweeted: “Mincéir families living on overcrowded sites with limited or no access to water, and many with only shared portaloo toilets, any plans being put in place to protect these families?”
For years, local authorities in Ireland have failed to address the accommodation crisis for Travellers, refused to draw down available funds and often resort to forced evictions stranding families on the side of the road.
As Sindy Joyce explained, there is nothing incidental about such neglect: “The racial divide is deeply ingrained into Irish society where hostility and violence towards my people is seen to be justified because of our ‘difference’ to the mainstream settled population.”
As the Irish taoiseach announced unprecedented measures to counter the spread of the virus, Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre stated, “The stark reality is that Travellers are one of the most vulnerable groups in relation to this crisis and yet many Travellers will not be able to effectively self-isolate (where advised).”
This new virus has given added boost to an older one – racist scapegoating of Roma.
In Slovakia, the mayor of Kosice, Jaroslav Polacek, posted a warning on social media that coronavirus can spread because of the behaviour of “socially unadaptable people” in Roma settlements who do not respect emergency measures.
In some other Slovak towns, inhabitants have called on the authorities to adapt punitive “special measures” against segregated Roma settlements.
Roma and pro-Roma activists who have teamed up with health care professionals to monitor the situation and liaise with the authorities to help the most vulnerable, have called for calm and an end to this type of scare-mongering in Slovakia.
While many social workers and health mediators cannot visit settlements because they lack protective gear, Romani residents have mobilised to protect themselves.
Hundreds of local activists and midwives are disseminating vital information to prevent virus spread in 260 overcrowded segregated Roma settlements.
However, despite these efforts most settlements report an urgent lack of food, emotional support and reliable information. Despite emergency measures announced by the Slovak government, some 50 settlements are reported to be currently without water.
Housing rights activists in Cluj, Romania have demanded the authorities take emergency measures to protect the health of Romani families living in the infamous Pata Rât settlement.
In an open letter to the authorities, that details the squalid conditions of over 1,500 people, their immune systems weakened by years of living in a crowded and toxic environment, the activists asked: “How can you defend yourself against coronavirus by frequently washing your hands if you have no water in the house? How can you protect yourself if you need to share 16 square meters with another 5-6 or more people? How can you take care of your health in the vicinity of toxic waste dumps?”
The Roma Civil Monitor which researched the impact of national Roma integration strategies across the European Union, found that in the Czech Republic the number and size of segregated ‘socially excluded localities’, where Roma live in appalling conditions was actually growing.
In Slovakia, some municipalities ‘export their problematic Roma residents’ to cheap houses in remote villages.
Mayors have used public funds to build segregation walls, and to ‘relocate’ Roma on to the outskirts of villages in dodgy housing units, without access to basic utilities.
Toilets and running water
The Fundamental Rights Agency found that one third of the Roma surveyed in their research continue to live in housing that has no tap water inside the house; 38 percent do not have a toilet, shower or bathroom inside their home – in stark contrast to the general population average recorded by Eurostat.
“Roma in Romania – the country with the highest number of Roma in the EU – enjoy access to safe water in rates similar to those in Bhutan, Ghana or Nepal.”
The Roma Civil Monitor likewise found that in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia, even where safe water supply and sanitation services were available to non-Roma households, systemic discrimination meant that Roma were often denied such services.
To add insult to injury, in the same week that governments were declaring national emergencies, and experts urging people to “wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to prevent community spread”, the European Court of Human Rights dismissed its first ever right-to-water case.
The case concerned a Romani community in Slovenia, and a majority of judges found that the applicants failed to demonstrate sufficiently that “the State’s alleged failure to provide them with access to safe drinking water resulted in adverse consequences for health and human dignity.”
The callous judgment betrays scant regard for the health and human dignity of Roma, all the more blatant for being delivered in the midst of this pandemic.
Experts’ greatest fear is cases of the virus arising in poor, densely populated neighbourhoods.
Even in the best of times inequality is a killer, its grim toll evident in disparities in infant mortality, chronic disease and life expectancy between Roma and non-Roma.
In these, the worst of times, one can only hope that decades of wilful and racist neglect that has banished many Roma to segregated slums and shanty-towns, without access to clean water and medical care, will not lead to calamity in the coming weeks and months.