Bratislava, Slovakia – The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was expected to bring a perfect storm to Slovakia’s marginalised Roma communities. In some Roma enclaves in Slovakia, the conditions for the virus to run amok were ideal – families living in cramped unhygienic shanty towns with no electricity or running water.
But thanks to co-operation between government agencies, NGOs and the Roma communities themselves the Roma minority have been no worse hit than the rest of Slovak society. In some ways this was a lucky escape, as conditions for the marginalised Roma communities going into the pandemic put them at a distinct disadvantage.
Slovakia’s Roma community: “Longstanding neglect”
On April 7, 2020, the OSCE (Organisation for Security & Co-operation in Europe) issued a statement drawing attention to the disproportionate risks that Romani people faced in relation to catching Covid-19. They highlighted “the longstanding neglect of Roma that is now leaving them highly vulnerable as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the globe.”
The three basic tenets of the government’s Covid advice – wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands regularly – are hard to implement if you are living in an overcrowded shack with no access to running water.
According to the official census, there are approximately 90,000 Roma in Slovakia, but experts estimate the real number may be anywhere between 350,000 and 500,000. About half live separate from the rest of society in ghettos on the outskirts of towns.
The first Roma groups settled in what is now Slovakia as far back as the 13th century. Due to their nomadic lifestyle they tended to live on the social periphery of what was then the Hungarian Kingdom. Since the 18th century several attempts have been made to facilitate greater assimilation. These ramped up in the 20th century, a century that was particularly turbulent from a Roma perspective. Cultural shocks from repeated forced resettlements, open discrimination and hostility from the state, and an ever-deepening poverty which escalated in 1989. As Slovakia as a country has got richer, its Roma minority has got significantly poorer.
After World War One, the newly-created Czechoslovakia enacted several laws aimed at making the Roma less nomadic. The government regarded them as a priori criminals. Tiso’s Nazi puppet government went even further, establishing special labour camps for the Roma. Although these closed when the war ended, this did not end the discrimination. At one point Roma women were offered financial incentives to submit to sterilisation.
So by the time communism fell in 1989 and Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, the Roma minority were already thoroughly marginalised, living in extreme poverty in segregated communities. They were simply not ready or able to take advantage of the many opportunities that came Slovakia’s way. Unemployment, already high, increased dramatically.
Local NGOs rise up to the COVID challenge in Roma communities
So life was challenging enough for Slovakia’s Roma going into 2020, and the emergence of Covid-19 intensified the existing issues. The problems in the most marginal communities included low health literacy, hindered access to drinkable water, poor sewage systems, high population density. Unemployment increased again with successive lockdowns, while essentials like food and heating became even harder to secure.
These were the challenges facing government agencies and NGOs at the start of the pandemic. Organisations like People in Need Slovakia and Zdravé Regiony (Healthy Regions) have been working together to tackle the situation in Roma communities
People in Need Slovakia divided their work into two phases. In the first phase, they focused on urgent aid in the settlements that needed it most. They distributed masks, disinfectants and soaps, handing out 731 jerry cans in 15 locations that had no access to running water.
In many households the main wage-earner had been laid off, and with schools closed the children could not benefit from free school meals, so People in Need Slovakia arranged food provisions for the poorest families.
Once the urgent emergency measures were in place, they were able to give more attention to the longer-term consequences of Covid in the marginalised Roma communities which, among other things, have been disproportionately affected by the closure of schools and the move to distance learning. In many households there is no electricity, never mind the broadband internet and laptop needed to take part in Zoom lessons.
People in Need Slovakia organised summer schools in five locations, they gave personalised tailor-made study assistance to 164 of the most disadvantaged Roma children.
Zdravé Regiony (Healthy Regions) has roots as an NGO going back 2003, but since 2016 they have been working under the auspices of the Ministry of Health. In the summer they embarked on the project “Korona Te Merel!”. In the Roma language this loosely translates as “Death to Corona!”
“Death to Corona!”
A key principle of Zdravé Regiony’s work is the use of “health mediators”. These are members of the local communities who are present in the field on a daily basis. Most have only a primary level of education, and very few have medical qualifications. But they work with the medical professionals as a bridge between them and the local inhabitants and do not directly provide medical services. Zdravé Regiony are training them in first aid, in caring for newborns and mothers and encouraging them to increase their educational level.
One key thing the mediators can do very well is to monitor. They are known and trusted in their communities and their visits are welcomed. They are able to liaise with health professionals, to recognise mild symptoms from severe and act accordingly. They can help with co-ordination of testing and vaccinations in communities where trust in authorities is often very low.
The actions of groups like People in Need Slovakia and Zdravé Regiony have brought positive results. Despite the massive challenges, mass nationwide testing at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 has shown that incidences of Covid-19 are no more prevalent in Roma communities than in the rest of society.
Their inclusive approach may have played a crucial part in this. The organisations are working with the Roma communities at every stage. They bring the resources, the logistics and the medical expertise. The local knowledge, the trust and the connections come from the Roma communities.
Perhaps the new government have learned lessons from the past where many state initiatives have failed. These have been largely paternalistic, aiming to “fix the Roma problem” and have seen the Roma as one large homogeneous group. In fact, the Roma minority is strongly differentiated from within. It includes a number of culturally diversified sub-ethnic groups, often speaking different dialects or languages. This is why the recent policy of working with and through community representatives has brought better results.
Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s OĽaNO party pledged to take Roma issues far more seriously when elected in March 2020 and despite an inauspicious start, he seems to be doing that. Andrea Najvirtová, the director of People in Need Slovakia, described the actions of the government as “rather chaotic at the beginning, which put Roma communities in the spotlight, which in some cases led to unintended further stigmatisation.” However, she went on to praise the later work of the government in coming up with a systematic pandemic plan and convening a panel of experts to deal specifically with the prevention and control of COVID-19 in marginalised Roma communities.
The government’s shaky start
The case Najvirtová is referring to when describing the government’s chaotic initial response is the enforced quarantine of five segregated Roma communities in April. On the morning of April 9, residents of Bystrany and four nearby districts in the east of Slovakia woke up to find that their community had been roped off by green and white police tape, and police and soldiers were patrolling the perimeter to enforce an unannounced quarantine.
Matovič insisted that it was “not a hostile act”, rather one that was aimed at protecting people and although many Roma accepted this, it was not a good look. No non-Roma neighbourhoods experienced anything remotely similar. Also the quarantine was declared in one area after 31 people out of a population of 6,200 tested positive for Covid-19, well below the government’s published threshold of ten percent.
But after this shaky start, Slovakia’s work with Roma communities has proved to be effective. This is best demonstrated by the government’s revised vaccination plan. The original plan laid out four phases, with people in marginalised Roma communities in the third phase, alongside teachers, homeless people and asylum-seekers.
Following the results of mass testing, which did not show higher levels of mortality in Roma communities than in the general population, the government issued a new 11-phase plan. The Roma were not mentioned in this plan at all as a separate group.
The final challenge comes as the government tries to get sufficient people vaccinated to defeat Covid-19. Despite lower access to social media, the Roma communities have not been immune to the conspiracy theories that have infected the rest of Slovak society. Slovakia tends to lead the way in the EU when it comes to conspiracy belief.
More than 30% of the population believe at least one conspiracy theory related to vaccinations. Worryingly 15% of doctors would refuse a vaccination. A major push is underway to tackle the spread of disinformation and encourage vaccination take-up. And with organisations like People in Need Slovakia and Zdravé Regiony on the case, working alongside their Romani mediators, the prospects remain good.
This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.
By Brendan Oswald
Brendan Oswald is a freelance journalist based in Slovakia. He worked for the British Council for twenty years in several countries, including three years (2012-2015) as a director in Ukraine. You can read his previous articles here.