Europe’s Invisible Population: The Romani People and the Hidden Impact of COVID-19

By Rachel Bejo

While mainstream media and political attention were focused on the spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020, institutionalized racism and discrimination were increasing against Romani communities throughout Europe, as reported by European Roma Rights Center (ERRC). The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority ethnic group, whose origin can be traced back to Northern India from around the 12th century. Now a plurinational and mobile population, they have made a home for themselves in various European countries. Their lifestyles can be nomadic but tend to be more settled, many living in caravans and mobile or brick homes. 

 

The Romani people have always struggled in Europe, being discriminated against and treated unequally even before COVID-19. Mainly in Eastern Europe, their history includes prejudice, enslavement, and genocides; 400,000 Romanis alone were murdered by Nazis during World War II. Now a marginalized population, an estimated 80% of European Romas live below the poverty line. They are highly discriminated against and have yet to be fully integrated into any country’s societies or communities. 

 

Spain adopted the National Strategy for the Social Inclusion of Roma, implemented from 2012 to 2020, in an effort to combat their seclusion. Despite this, in Spain and other nations, Roma still faces many barriers in access to healthcare and education-placing these populations in a vicious circle from which it is increasingly difficult to escape. Rather than acknowledging these injustices, many Members of the European Parliament (MEP) pay no attention to the struggles of the Roma, or merely use them as political “weapon[s]”, as highlighted by Roma MEP Lívia Járóka. 

 

When COVID-19 reached Europe, racist narratives were increasingly spewed to demonize Romani communities and propagate their involvement in further spreading the virus. Bulgarian MEP of the European Conservatives and Reformists, Angel Dzhambazki, theorized that Romani “ghettos [could] turn out to be the real nests of contagion”, and a Slovakian mayor labeled Roma as health threats because they were what he deemed as “socially unacceptable people”. These false narratives led many governments to place disproportionate ‘safety’ measures on Roma communities in comparison to the rest of the population, quarantining them and restricting their freedom of circulation. 

 

In Bulgaria, without any confirmed COVID cases, the government placed 6 Romani neighborhoods on lockdown. A militarized approach was taken through the implementation of roadblocks and police checkpoints. Some areas were even sprayed with disinfectant by drones. Police intimidation increased as authorities took advantage of the pandemic measures to be more aggressive towards Roma. ERRC communications member, Jonathan Lee, noted the uptick in the number of raids on Roma communities and the apparent aggressiveness of police.

 

Romani communities were also left out of emergency policies put forward to handle the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. Many Balkan nations created relief systems to provide different benefits for those left unemployed, which many Roma people do not have access to because of the informal jobs some of them tend to work. With irregular incomes and limited eligibility for support from governments or financial institutions, Romas were left with limited options.

 

The Roma people experienced discrepancies and segregation prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic has only heightened the prejudice against them. It is unclear how Roma communities will move forward from the devastation the pandemic has left them with, or how their role in society may change.