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Roma in the COVID-19 crisis: An early warning from six EU Member States

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Neda Korunovska and Zeljko Jovanovic Open Society Roma Initiatives Office


The European Union (EU) member states covered by this briefing (Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) have not responded with proportionate attention to the much higher risk of death from COVID-19 in Roma communities.

  • Health measures are inadequate for conditions of extreme poverty and are conditioned on health insurance coverage, which many Roma lack.
  • Soldiers, police personnel, and drones have been more present in Roma communities in Bulgaria and Slovakia than have nurses, doctors, and medical supplies.
  • After initial assistance efforts organized by Roma civil society and some international organizations, governments have started providing emergency aid, yet it is aid that is inadequate and will not be enough to address community needs.
  • States provide social assistance, but the assistance does not cover those who made a living in the informal economy and those who have returned to their countries of origin from Western Europe.
  • Distance learning measures leave more than half of Roma children out of school and will likely lead to an increase in the already high dropout rates among Roma students.
  • Disinformation by members of the far right and others, combined with excessive security measures and police abuse, frames the Roma as a public health threat, reinforcing and politicizing hatred.
  • The most dramatic and long-lasting impact is on Roma workers and entrepreneurs, many of whom worked in the informal economy, in low-skill and low-wage jobs, or in the arts and culture industry and who are not included in social and economic recovery plans.

The recommendations section of this briefing (page 8) lists urgent measures that should be calibrated in each country and community. Some of the member states covered here have taken measures that are highlighted as positive examples below. These examples, however, are exceptions that confirm the rule rather than signs of solidarity or a better systemic approach. The long-term measures that we propose would be the basis of such an approach.

The current crisis and the EU recovery plan present both the necessity and opportunity to consider the situation of Roma as a matter of fairness, rights, obligations, needs, and benefits for Roma communities. Even without the COVID-19 crisis, the future of European economies was troubled due to aging populations and other negative demographic trends. At the same time, the Roma remain the youngest, most vibrant, and fastest growing segment of Europe’s population. In this context, right after the 2008 financial crisis, the World Bank reported that racism and the exclusion of Roma cause significant economic losses. For example, lower bound annual productivity losses range from 526 million euro in Bulgaria to 887 million in Romania, and lower bound annual fiscal losses range from 202 million euro in Romania to 370 million euro in Bulgaria. Now more than ever, it is necessary to reconsider this argument as a matter of sound political and economic decision-making.

Our primary recommendation is that the European Commission and the EU’s financial institutions— for example, the European Investment Bank— should take responsibility for complementing the measures of national governments, both in the short and long term. The expectation that EU structural funds alone would be an adequate instrument for making a macroeconomic impact on Roma communities has proven to be far from realistic— and will remain so—if supervision over these funds is loosened. The measures we recommend can be effective if the EU institutions centrally allocate and manage targeted funds to maximize the potential of the Roma population. Such an approach should pay particular attention to targeting cities, towns, and districts with a higher proportion of Roma inhabitants and be carried out in partnership with innovative and capable Roma advocates and Romaled organizations.