The pandemic has highlighted system failures and the importance of coordination in addressing the situation of Roma
The COVID-19 pandemic in Slovakia has caught us off guard in many ways. It has exposed the actual state of our healthcare and education system and our social policies. On the other hand, it has also shown that we can act in solidarity and humanity. We have seen both the strengths and the weaknesses of all areas of our social and private lives. At the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture, we were regularly monitoring and evaluating how the pandemic and the measures taken were affecting the individual minorities and vulnerable groups. For instance, we were carrying out monthly analyses for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) of the impact the pandemic was having on minorities.1
After the first news about the increasing number of people positively tested for COVID-19 coronavirus in Slovakia, there were many voices calling for consideration and protection of the most vulnerable people. In relation to marginalized Roma communities, such concerns, proposals for measures and warnings were mostly voiced by non-governmental organizations, but also by the then Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, Abel Ravasz. His office proposed specific measures with a view to protecting health of people from marginalized Roma communities (hereinafter MRCs).2 At the end of March 2020, there was “A Call of Civic Society Representatives to the Government of the Slovak Republic“ that emphasized the need to be ready for a potential crisis. The call pointed out the poor living conditions and health of people living in MRCs, the risk of geometric progression of the number of infected people in these areas and it called on the government to pay adequate attention to the situation, to develop a crisis response, to enable priority testing in MRCs and to cooperate with different civic initiatives working in the communities for a long time.3
Problematic quarantine in Roma settlements
At the beginning of April, a plan for addressing COVID-19 virus in marginalized Roma communities4 was approved shortly after the new Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, Andrea Bučková, had taken office (see also the interview with the new Plenipotentiary in this issue of Minority Policy). Among other measures, the plan included basic information, a description of the testing procedure and the procedure in case of persons with known results of laboratory tests, as well as the rules for imposing quarantine on various facilities or the procedures to be taken in placing a particular location under quarantine. Subsequently, testing began in certain locations with MRCs presence. As the number of positive test results was rising, the state imposed total quarantine on some locations.
When the total quarantine was imposed on the first Roma settlements, Roma organizations, non-governmental organizations working in these locations and other actors began to voice their concerns. Concerns about a potential increase of negative social mood and attitudes towards marginalized groups were voiced most frequently. The different actors also pointed out that the presence of armed forces in the locations was inappropriate. Non-governmental organizations urged the Slovak government to immediately remove the discriminatory measures taken in marginalized Roma communities. In addition, they emphasized that measures significantly limiting free movement of people and their freedoms went against the declared principle of equal treatment of people from marginalized communities.5
In its Open Letter to the Council of Europe, Amnesty international stated that the government “imposed specific measures including compulsory mass quarantine on Roma settlements that were not imposed on any other groups of citizens. This raises questions about the compliance of such practices with the requirement of equal treatment under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the EU Race Equality Directive.”6
In another statement, Amnesty International said that the quarantine imposed on Roma settlements could constitute a violation of human rights unless the government proved the measures were in line with the law. The organization also noted the failure to ensure enough food and medical supplies in the affected locations. Moreover, Amnesty International criticised the enforcement of quarantine by the police forces and the army: “The presence of armed military patrols in the surrounding of settlements placed under quarantine seems to be a form of intimidation and raises questions about adequacy of their deployment in the course of implementing measures for public health protection”.7 Another report of the organization on the procedures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic stated the following: „A lot of measures taken against Roma have contributed to their further stigmatization and prejudice against them. There are still concerns whether the quarantine sites were in line with the World Health Organization’s requirements. Finally, we have received several serious complaints about the use of unlawful force by the police.“ 8
All the above initiatives, statements, recommendations, proposed solutions and measures, as well as criticism send an important message about the procedures, measures and events during the crisis. At the same time, they can serve as guidelines to making necessary changes in developing and implementing measures in future.
Poor coordination of relevant actors
After the COVID-19 pandemic breakout, municipalities were left to their own devices regarding management and crisis response. They coordinated and developed measures to mitigate the impact of crisis on their own. This has proved to be rather unfortunate in some locations, such as Gelnica, where the whole Roma settlement was placed under quarantine, which was due to the fact that no other measures or assistance was available from the state.9 Community centres, field social workers and NGOs working in this location responded relatively fast and coordinated the implementation of measures and processes for the protection of health and emergency assistance in the affected locations or those at risk.
In future, it will be necessary to develop a plan for coordination of all relevant actors, including actors from the vulnerable communities. It is crucial to examine what worked, what needs to be improved and what the lessons to learn are. The potential second surge of the coronavirus pandemic requires an improved plan and a revision of the individual measures taken in terms of their success or failure during the first wave of the pandemic. There are enough expert recommendations and data collected for a new or revised plan for a crisis response in marginalized Roma communities to help deal with the situation without raising questions about potential violations of human rights or inadequate interventions of armed forces.
When developing such a plan, the unique, serious emergency, in which the previous measures were taken, should be taken into consideration. The plan should consider the recommendations, criticism and proposals of people in the front lines, as well as the people who were on the other side of the quarantine tape and were living in fear and worrying about their health and future.
Stigmatization of Roma resulted in tension
The increasing number of positively tested people in Roma settlements, the quarantine imposed on individual locations and the changing measures have resulted in many negative reactions to Roma communities. Prejudice, fear of and negative attitudes to Roma escalated during the coronavirus crisis. We were reading and hearing stories about Roma in the settlements placed under quarantine being given food and alcohol for free. They were often seen as those who spread the infection or those who were to blame if they were positively tested.
The fact that the imposed quarantine was eventually lifted in Roma settlements does not mean the situation is resolved. We can already name the current and the future consequences and impact of the coronavirus pandemic – repeated stigmatization or further deterioration of relations between the majority and the minority, an increase of the already high unemployment rate, a loss of income in case of people who worked abroad, poor quality and level of education of children during the pandemic or deepening segregation can trigger further waves of unfavourable life situations.
The protection of public health must be a priority, particularly in marginalized Roma communities where the health of people is much poorer than the health of majority population. At the same time, it is necessary to take measures and implement tools in order to mitigate the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis especially on vulnerable groups and in the locations where the crisis did not arrive with the pandemic, but had been there to a certain extent even before.
- FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) (2020), Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the EU Fundamental Rights Implications, available at: https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/slovakia-report-covid-19-april-2020_en.pdf, FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) (2020), Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the EU Fundamental Rights Implications, available at: https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/sk_report_on_coronavirus_pandemic-_may_2020.pdf, FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) (2020), Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the EU Fundamental Rights Implications, available at: https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/sk_report_on_coronavirus_pandemic_june_2020.pdf, FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) (2020), Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the EU Fundamental Rights Implications, available at: https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/sk_report_on_coronavirus_pandemic_july_2020.pdf
- The Office of Government´s Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities (2020), ´Recommendations for Quarantine Measures in Marginalised Roma Communities´, available at: http://www.minv.sk/swift_data/source/romovia/galerie/korona_2020/covid-19-usmernenia.pdf and http://www.minv.sk/?spustili-sme-mapovy-portal-pre-zobrazovanie-a-koordinaciu-naplnania-potrieb-obyvatelov-z-prostredia-marginalizovanych-romskych-komunit
- Kosová, I. (2020), ´We must protect people in Roma in settlements too. An appeal of representatives of civil society to the Government of the Slovak Republic´, SME Commentaries, 23 March 2020, available at: https://komentare.sme.sk/c/22365845/musime-chranit-aj-ludi-v-osadach.html
- The Government of the Slovak Republic (2020), Plan to address the COVID-19 disease in marginalized Roma communities, 2 April 2020, available at: https://rokovania.gov.sk/RVL/Material/24697/1,
- Korzár Spiš SME (2020), ´Roma organisations criticize the way of testing in Roma settlements´, 9 April 2020, available at: https://spis.korzar.sme.sk/c/22380127/romske-organizacie-kritizuju-sposob-testovania-v-osadach.html
- Amnesty International, Open Letter to the Council of Europe: Quarantines in Roma Settlements in Bulgaria and Slovakia demand urgent attention´, 20 May 2020, available at: https://www.amnesty.sk/otvoreny-list-rade-europy-karanteny-romskych-osad-v-bulharsku-a-na-slovensku-si-vyzaduju-naliehavu-pozornost/
- Amnesty International, ´Stigmatising Quarantine of Roma communities in Slovakia and Bulgaria´, 20 April 2020, available at: https://www.amnesty.sk/stigmatizujuca-karantena-romskych-komunit-na-slovensku-a-v-bulharsku/
- Amnesty International, ´Counter-pandemic measures in Europe revealed racial prejudice in police structures and discrimination´, 24 June 2020, available at: https://www.amnesty.sk/protipandemicke%e2%80%afkarantenne-opatrenia-v-europe-odhalili-rasove-predsudky-v-policajnych-strukturach-a-diskriminaciu/
- Šimoňáková, M. (2020), ´The Háj Settlement in Gelnica remains behind the police tape and quarantine´, Korzár Spiš, 31 March 2020, available at: https://spis.korzar.sme.sk/c/22372934/osada-haj-v-gelnici-ostava-opaskovana-a-v-karantene.html
Michaela Píšová joined CVEK in 2018. She studied Applied Social Work in Nitra and worked in social services and focused on education and social integration in direct contact with clients. In CVEK she is mainly focused on topics of social inclusion and education.