It will take years to resolve impacts of the pandemics on Roma communities

Interview by Michaela Píšová

I talked to Peter Adam, the Head of Department for Social Integration Programmes in NGO Človek v ohrození, about the organisation’s work and about supporting people in socially excluded Roma communities during the coronavirus pandemic. In the interview, we address challenges the organisation is facing, its collaboration with various actors, as well as the pandemic and its negative and positive impact.

In April 2020, your organisation, which has experience with providing humanitarian aid during crises abroad and also works in Slovakia in socially excluded Roma communities, developed recommendations for humanitarian interventions in such communities. You then sent the recommendations to the Crisis Staff and offered cooperation to them. What was the relevant authorities’ response and to what extent do they take your recommendations into consideration?

During the first surge of the pandemic, they took minimum of them into consideration. We‘d provided quite a few recommendations that were considered, but in the end, they made decisions in line with the already tried procedures or they made ad hoc decisions and reacted to various situations as they occurred. And, it wasn’t only us, there were experts from several organisations who would meet regularly. There were also representatives of Zdrave regiony (Healthy Regions), field social workers or community centres.

There are thousands of front-line workers who bring various good practice examples and experience.

I feel the relevant authorities have taken some of our advice, but only in a very limited way. For instance, it was only in November, nine months since the outbreak of the pandemic, that the Expert working group for socially excluded Roma communities at the Slovak Government’s Pandemic Committee was finally set up. It‘s very, very late. The working group was approved by a government decree and there are representatives of NGOs, the Ministry of Health, epidemiologists and organisations working with people from socially excluded Roma communities. The group came to existence due to pressure and intervention from Zdrave regiony (Healthy Regions) as they have most relevant information and experience because they have field workers in many places. It‘s positive that there‘s a working group like that. When we, for instance, consider the fact that next spring, the process of vaccination is due to begin, we already need to start an intense campaign about the importance to get vaccinated and about potential risks related to it.

What has changed when compared to the first wave of the pandemic?

What‘s important is there‘s data collection now and there are statistics. The state is more prepared as it has developed a pandemic plan, which includes some of the things we’d recommended. The fact that there‘s a traffic lights system for the pandemic, a set of recommendations for social services and other measures means that the state is more ready for the second surge than it was for the first one when nobody really knew what to do. I also think some lessons have been learned. At the moment, when we have rising numbers of people tested positive for COVID-19, the individual locations are not placed under quarantine because it‘s clear now that it isn’t sustainable. The state now knows how much staff, energy, time and money it takes and that placing segregated Roma communities under a long-term quarantine in different places at the same time is impossible. Other solutions are used such as inspection of home quarantine and support of home quarantine.   

After the first rounds of mass testing, we had people who’d tested positive in each location. We worked with them, so that they remained in home quarantine; we helped them with shopping so they could stay at home for 10 days together with their children without having to borrow money or go out and get food or wood for heating. Our support helped to keep the families safe; they’ve survived the quarantine without a risk of spreading the virus and are OK now.

You’re talking about placing Roma communities under quarantine. What do you think of it in retrospect?

I think it happened due to lack of preparedness of municipalities and the regional public health offices. We’d communicated to municipalities the importance of having a plan ready in order to determine, for instance, where people could go to isolate themselves if needed. The municipalities weren’t prepared for the situation; they didn’t‘ have money and management for that. Therefore, it went too far, and the state stepped in and resolved the situation by imposing quarantine. In that situation, it was probably the only solution at a certain point, but it was far from ideal since the municipalities were not ready for such a solution either. I’m sure it could have been done differently. For instance, we watched the choppers flying over the Roma communities, which we saw as a demonstration of power. I’m sure, they could have arrived by car. However, the presence of soldiers was OK because at that time, it was the only force with adequate staff and logistics. Nevertheless, all the other things that were happening, like the arrival of 10 military units, the Prime Minister, the choppers, I think it could have been done in a more subtle way. In other locations, people were being tested, too. At one point, 30 municipalities were tested like that and in other 29 municipalities it was possible to do it quietly, without much ado. So, clearly, it can be done differently.

What was happening in the communities your organisation works with?

It certainly made people more nervous and more frustrated even in other locations because they were concerned and didn’t know what would happen if they were to face a similar situation. We were trying to explain to people in the communities that those who are in quarantine receive proper health care. It was crucial to explain everything so that they didn’t feel scared. It was also important to talk about the pandemic measures and tell people it was about their health and health of their loved ones.

During the first wave of pandemic, the issue of Roma communities resonated in the media and in the statements of politicians almost every day. We were hearing about potential sources of infection and how Roma communities were a ticking timebomb about to go off. It seems to me that we hear much less about the pandemic in socially excluded Roma communities now. What do you make of it?

I think it‘s not an issue anymore. They’ve found it’s not a kind of sensational thing they can use over and over again. When it all started, we had no idea what the number of COVID-19 positive people would be in the communities or how fast the virus would spread. Eventually, it turned out it wasn’t as serious as expected. At the moment, people who were irresponsible and went to weddings and big family gatherings are a bigger problem than people in Roma communities. In the communities, people are still worried and scared. If they meet, they aren’t around people from the majority. They exercise restraint when it comes to social contacts, and so prevent the virus from spreading.

How would you say the pandemic has affected socially excluded Roma communities? How is it different from the impact it’s had on other inhabitants of Slovakia who don’t live in socially excluded communities?

One way, in which the pandemic has affected primarily socially excluded Roma communities, is their health and the spread of virus in those locations. We learned our system was unprepared for this during the first wave. It’s the 21st century and there are 50 villages with not access to running drinking water. So, if you ask people to meet one of the basic requirements and tell them to wash their hands, you find they have nowhere to do so because they don’t have water or take it from the local creek, well or hydrant and carry it in buckets as far as one kilometre to bring it home. It means that meeting the basic hygiene standards is difficult. Therefore, the spread of coronavirus is sometimes faster. It’s true that there are more people who’ve tested positive in some locations, but it’s not as extreme as we were expecting it to be at the beginning.

The negative impact of the pandemic on the people living in socially excluded Roma communities is a much bigger problem. It’s mainly the area of education of Roma children we’ll be probably dealing with in the next 2-3 years. Then, it’s the issue of employment. Many people have lost their jobs; other have lost the opportunity to do short-term temporary jobs and there are people who have come back from abroad where many of them had a chance to earn their living and have lost it. As a result, their standard of living has decreased. Many low qualification or unqualified jobs have been taken by people who were made redundant due to the pandemic and have higher education. So, there aren‘t enough vacancies for people from socially excluded Roma communities who often have only basic education. Due to lower income, many families have lack of food and depend on humanitarian aid such as food and hygiene packages.

You’ve been working in the socially excluded Roma communities for a long time; you have 5 community centres where you carry out your projects. You’ve basically been in the front line throughout the pandemic. What are the biggest challenges you’re facing with regard to the pandemic?

During the first wave, we were in the front line, but there was a lack of everything, including protective equipment. It means that even though we, and other organisations, had people in the field, we couldn’t use them at their full capacity. At that time, not even health care workers had protective equipment, it was available only later. At the moment, the impact of the pandemic on socially excluded Roma communities is the biggest challenge. We feel it has affected children most. It’s not just the educational cycle, but it’s also about routine like getting up in the morning and going to school. And, if their parents aren’t at home to wake them up and motivate them to do the school tasks, it’s even more difficult. Distance learning is virtually non-existent in our locations and children are losing the necessary routine. It’ll be even harder later to compensate for the lost education and to re-establish the routine they had and to motivate them again.   

You also provide support to children from socially excluded communities in the field of education. We already have a rather detailed and quite a sad picture of the children who were completely left out of the education process due to the pandemic. What’s the situation in the field of education for children in socially excluded Roma communities like during the pandemic?

We know that almost 50,000 children had no education during the first surge of the pandemic. Now, during the second lockdown, when schools are closed again, the children in the locations where we work get worksheets. They’re doing them with the help of our community and field social workers. However, it’s not enough. We need to bear in mind that there are primarily social workers in community centres and it’s different from having a teacher or a pedagogical staff who can actually teach children. Children often miss feedback from their teachers about the progress they’re making. We can only provide the necessary minimum to them. I’m afraid they’ll be lagging behind due to where they come from. The time they’d otherwise spend at school is lost to them. The children we meet in our centres often don’t have a desk or a place to study at home. Before the pandemic, they would come to the community centre after school and learn there.  The community centre is one of few places where the children can have some social contact at the moment. Therefore, we carried out summer schools in all our community centres throughout the summer. Our aim was to motivate them to get ready to go back to the education system.

At the moment, there’s the second surge of the pandemic and older children can’t go to school again. What’s changed in relation to education since spring?

Children get tasks more regularly now. Schools have prepared for such a situation and they develop and distribute tasks to children more regularly or send worksheets to them through us. The problem still is that the children have no opportunity to be in touch with the teacher online. I’m not saying this is true everywhere. But, in four out of five locations we work in there’s no online learning because there’s no equipment and no internet connection.

What will the consequences be for the children growing up in socially excluded Roma communities?

For instance, if they have to repeat the school year, they’ll complete the compulsory school attendance in eighth year because they went to the prep zero year, which gets included in the compulsory school attendance. So, if they complete it in year eight, they can’t go to a regular secondary school. They can only study the F-rated secondary school courses, that is two-year courses without vocational certificate and school-leaving exam. As a result, their chances to study at a regular secondary school decrease. From the longer term, it results in a lower quality of life. Many children have also lost access to hot meal – the free lunch at school – which is yet another consequence of schools being closed.

What’s cooperation with municipalities been like during the pandemic?

As usually, the cooperation is good and works in municipalities we have good relations with. We’ve helped them several times because we either do many activities instead of them or we can give them recommendations. Sometimes, I feel the regional governments were a more relevant partner than local municipalities as they were able to do or arrange more things needed. Still, it also depended on the cooperation in the past and on who you got to deal with. One of our goals was to initiate networking of experts in order to develop a plan that would help us respond to different situations. The Regional Public Health Office is a completely separate authority and we were unable to find a way to establish a relevant cooperation with them. It’s probably because they stick to their autonomy and we aren’t a relevant partner for them.

What is the role of people and organisations working in socially excluded Roma communities in the process of mitigating the negative impact of the pandemic, do you think?

They’re crucial in the process. In Slovakia, there are about 4,000 professionals working in the field at the moment. They’re community workers, field social workers, members of the local civil patrols, health assistants, teacher assistants and others. These people are trained and paid to deal with issues in socially excluded Roma communities. At the moment, it means dealing also with the impact of the pandemic. The problem, though, is that there isn’t a single umbrella institution for all this. We have a strange system, in which the Office of the Plenipotentiary is responsible for 150 municipalities; the Ministry of Labour and the Implementation Agency deal with other municipalities and Healthy Regions projects are in various other municipalities. What’s missing is an authority that would, for instance, say let’s now focus on community centres; let’s focus on support of education and let’s allocate the necessary funds and other resources to do so. Let’s train people who will help parents and children with education and let’s do it the same way in all community centres. Often, there isn’t an agreement on who’s doing what; everyone manages their activities in their own way  and then, it’s hard to see what’s going on and it’s not always a good thing.

Has your attitude and your goals changed in any way due to the pandemic?

We’ve started to focus more on humanitarian aid in Slovakia, which we would only provide locally at certain times in the past. However, we’re now focusing on humanitarian aid not only in the locations where our organisation works, but also in other places. For instance, we’ll be distributing donations from a big Christmas charity collection to about 400 families finding themselves in a crisis due to the pandemic. We’re also trying to respond to the situation regarding education. We want to hire more people for our community centres next year who will help to develop tutoring and teaching materials. We can see that children not getting any education now are  lagging behind really badly and it’ll require more intense work. That’s exactly the thing – we, as an NGO, respond to the situation unlike the state, which could re-allocate funds and think how to mitigate the unfavourable situation and help children without access to education and isn’t doing it, which is a shame.

What has the pandemic revealed about socially excluded Roma communities? What are some lessons to learn? The good thing is that it has shown people from socially excluded Roma communities can be responsible and don’t pose a threat to the majority. It’s clear that they can respect the pandemic measures, meet the hygiene requirements and are willing to get tested when you talk to them. The pandemic has also shown people are still willing to help and haven’t given up on finding solutions to problems. We always need to remember we’re talking about a lot of people. Roma represent 10% of the population and a large number of them lives in segregated communities. The pandemic has also disclosed how badly unprepared we are and how inadequate the infrastructure is for such a situation. It’s about access to water, public sewer system, legalizing people’s dwellings, access to health care, education of children or supported employment. These are all things that don’t work and if they did work better, maybe the impact and the consequences of the pandemic wouldn’t be so grave.