The Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority — and among the most marginalized European citizens, excluded from society for decades. With the coronavirus pandemic, now they're facing a potential humanitarian disaster.
Many of the estimated 12 million Roma in Europe live in shantytowns without access to water, electricity or sanitation — not to mention with sometimes limited access to doctors.
"You have many family members living in the same improvised structure, when they're supposed to be social distancing to survive," says Ciprian-Valentin Nodis, a Roma and researcher from northern Romania. "And they can't eat because there's no work due to the pandemic. Where is this going to lead?"
COVID-19 testing is limited in Central and Eastern Europe, and it's unclear how many Roma have been infected, though there are some documented cases. But Nodis and other Roma activists say the conditions for a swift outbreak are there.
In northwestern Romania's Pata-Rât, where Nodis has documented conditions, some 2,000 are crammed into huts made of rotting wood that are built right on the local landfill. Residents sort through the trash for recyclables to sell.
"The children there are covered in so much dirt that you can't see the diseases on their skin," he says. "Many residents suffer from tuberculosis and hepatitis."
Nodis contributed to an upcoming report by the European Environmental Bureau, a collection of nonprofit groups, which documents environmental discrimination against Roma communities in Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and North Macedonia.
At Europe's largest Roma settlement, outside the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, about 60,000 Roma are cut off from clean water and sanitation. In Hungary, where Roma communities also lack access to basic services, Roma leaders say they cannot obey curfew orders if it means their families will starve. In Slovakia, the government sent the military to quarantine Roma settlements to prevent a potential spread of COVID-19.
In Albania, the Council of Europe is helping municipalities deliver food, water, medicine and hygiene products to Roma settlements.
"People in our community leave to work in France or Italy," says Brisilda Taco, a Roma activist in Tirana, Albania's capital. "When the coronavirus outbreak took over Italy, I knew people who were very afraid to say they were sick because they were afraid how the authorities would react."
She says they grow up hearing insults about the Roma, that they're the cause of society's problems. "We have always been the scapegoats," she says, "but a virus never discriminates."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global wave of scapegoating. In Europe, a target has been the Roma, the continent's largest ethnic minority and its most marginalized. Many Roma are impoverished and lack proper housing, running water and sanitation. And that makes them especially vulnerable to infection and to discrimination. Here's Joanna Kakissis.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Roma neighborhood in Nadejda in central Bulgaria sounded like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KRASIMIR KIRILOV: Kids playing. Someone crying. Music. Someone celebrating. So it's full of life, basically
KAKISSIS: That's Krasimir Kirilov, a Roma activist in the city of Sliven. He lives near the neighborhood home to more than 25,000 Roma. They work in construction and as farm laborers in Western Europe. This is the city where a 7-foot wall was built to segregate the Roma from other residents. Roma families are crammed into huts and lack basic services.
KIRILOV: Clean water. Sewage is not working. People have low access to health care.
KAKISSIS: So they're vulnerable to COVID-19. Last month, Bulgarian police sealed off Roma neighborhoods, but not to protect them. A leading politician claims Roma neighborhoods are, quote, "the real nests of disease." Roma youth activist Mihael Mishev calls this textbook racism.
MIHAEL MISHEV: They call us gypsies, which is a bad word. Most of the people call us thieves - we're lazy and dirty.
KAKISSIS: Nukhet Varlik, a history professor at Rutgers University, says pandemics usually amplify existing prejudices. In the 14th century, Jews were blamed for the Black Death.
NUKHET VARLIK: We see these behaviors - the scapegoating, the blame, fear and hatred - those kinds of behaviors most typically when the cause of the disease was not known, when it seemed mysterious to people. So it was considered more of a threat.
KAKISSIS: Some Roma are so afraid of being blamed for COVID-19 that they won't go to the hospital when they're sick, says Brisilda Taco, a Roma advocate in Albania.
BRISILDA TACO: People which are sick, they are very discriminated from the society.
KAKISSIS: Twelve million Roma live in Europe. So far, they haven't seen huge outbreaks. But the lockdowns mean they can't work. Roma researcher Ciprian Nodis tells me on Skype about a scrap metal collector living on the landfill in northern Romania.
CIPRIAN NODIS: He lost his job. He's struggling to put food on the table of his children. He told me, look; we are here. We are living in the garbage. And the rest of the society treat us like garbage.
KAKISSIS: We will either die of hunger, he said, or disease.
For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.