„If the virus doesn’t kill us, the hunger will”. “We were kept as if in a concentration camp”. “How to wash our hands without water?”. Those are part of the observations shared by residents or Roma neighborhoods within the field research for the impact of Covid-19 and the anti-epidemic measures between March 2020 – December 2020. The research has been implemented by a team of the Open Society Institute – Sofia in 9 Roma neighbourhoods and one rural village with predominant Roma population. The goal of the research is to find out if there are specific issues in the Roma neighbourhoods within a pandemic situation and what are the interactions between the residents of similar neighborhoods, local institutions and non-governmental organizations.
The research covers 10 locations – including 5 where checkpoints have been introduced during the period of research: Iztok (Kyustendil), Karmen (Kazanlak), Nadezhda (Sliven), Shesti (Nova Zagora) and the village of Izgrev, municipality of Venets. The other 5 locations have not been a subject of checkpoint measures: Kosharnik (Montana); the Roma neighborhood in Byala Slatina; Svoboda (Maglizh), Strandzha (Aytos), Predel (Blagoevgrad).
The results of the survey are summarized within a report “COVID-19 in Roma neighbourhoods in Bulgaria (March – December 2020)” where some of the main findings are:
- Most of the interviewed residents in the surveyed locations report that they are aware of the existence of Covid-19 and are scared of it, but in the meantime about half of them state that they do not trust anyone in terms of information about the virus and do not approve the measures of “lockdown” of certain neighborhoods.
- About 2/3 of the surveyed respondents report that there is a loss of income or resources to cover their everyday needs, including food, during the state of emergency in the last year. After the end of the state of emergency the same problem is still persisting in more than half of the surveyed households.
- During the state of emergency, only in ¼ of the surveyed households, those that have been employed before that have remained employed.
- About 60% of the respondents share that during the state of emergency no one has provided assistance to people in the community, and after that period their share increases to 73%.
- Almost 1/5 of the students in the surveyed communities have not had technical equipment and no one has provided them with school materials to participate in the distance learning, and half of the kids aged 0 – 7 are with an interrupted vaccination schedule due to the pandemic and the related limitation measures.
DOES THE VIRUS EXIST AND HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?
High level of awareness of Covid-19 can be observed in the examined neighbourhoods: 2/3 of the Roma shared that they follow the news about the virus and the majority of the other respondents also receive information about the pandemic, mainly from the television without deliberately following it and paying particular attention.
The majority of the residents in the examined Roma neighbourhoods are aware of the virus-related risks: the ratio is 2:3 in favour of those who admitted to be scared. The Roma neighbourhoods in the municipalities of Blagoevgrad, Kazanluk and Nova Zagora seem to be most skeptic about the risk of the virus, as between a half and two-thirds of the respondents in these neighbourhoods claimed to not be afraid of the virus: “I don’t believe that there is something like that, it’s a lie”, “I’m not scared of such things, they’re telling us lies from the Ministry”, “Whatever they say on the news is a lie, they’re just scaring us”.
The issue of low trust in the institutions has been exacerbated in the pandemic: half of the respondents claimed that they did not trust anyone about Covid-19 information. Still, television stations, which are also the most common source of information about the pandemic, enjoy the greatest trust in this respect.
The combination of imposed emergency measures to restrict the movement of the residents of Roma neighbourhoods and the increased negative attitudes to them by the other local community members (out of fear that their fellow citizens from the neighbourhoods spread the disease), on the one hand, and the absence of a large number of infected and sick people in the respondents’ immediate environment, on the other hand, gives rise to the feeling of unfair treatment and discrimination.
Approximately a fourth of the respondents support the measure prohibiting citizens from neighbourhoods with a large number of infected people from leaving them unless they state a very serious reason to do so, the majority of 57% is against the measure and 18% are not sure. Out of the 10 studied localities, it is only in the village of Izgrev and Kazanlak that this measure has been identified as acceptable by the majority.
“WE WERE KEPT AS IF IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP”
The fact that special anti-covid measures have been imposed only on the residents of neighbourhoods or settlements with predominantly Roma population, without any reference to the health and epidemiological indicators that make them different from other neighbourhoods where such measures have not been imposed, constitutes unfair treatment.
The claims that specific restrictive measures have been imposed only on the Roma neighbourhoods because the residents do not comply with the general anti-covid measures and are a “disease incubator” do not rest on any evidence.
The media coverage of the topic has been mainly in the form of brief factual publications and hardly any media analyses can be found about the issue of the lawfulness of setting up access control checkpoints in neighbourhoods with predominantly Roma population. A number of media tactics familiar from previous periods that promote negative prejudices about the Roma can be seen against the background of the pandemic: the image of “a public enemy” and “a threat” is shaped, the ethnic background of the offenders is indicated and there are limited opportunities to present the position of the members of Roma communities.
“IF THE VIRUS DOES NOT KILL US, HUNGER WILL”
After the pandemic has started, major indicators of the well-being of the households in the examined neighbourhoods have considerably deteriorated. During the declared state of emergency approximately two-thirds of the households faced income loss and shortage of funds to meet their daily needs including buy food compared to the previous 2–3 months; the most affected neighbourhoods were in Aytos, Sliven, Kazanlak and Nova Zagora. Following the end of the state of emergency slightly more than half of the surveyed households still faced the same issue. However, if the number of households left without a job is added up, the share of the affected households will increase to approximately 70%.
When the findings were compared with data from a nationally representative survey carried out by Alpha Research in February 2021, it turned out that 12.4% of the families in the country altogether reported loss of income due to the pandemic, i.e. decreased income affected approximately 4 times more households in the 10 surveyed communities.
Unemployment is a permanent challenge in many of the surveyed neighbourhoods but it has increased during the pandemic and has been reported as a major issue in the aftermath of the state of emergency. During the state of emergency, only one-fourth of the households did not suffer a blow to employment due to the measures and, in some of the neighbourhoods (Sliven, Kyustendil, Byala Slatina and Maglizh), approximately four-fifths of the households had neither of the partners working.
Can anti-epidemic measures be observed?
“How can we wash our hands when there is no water ?” is a question that applies to many Roma neighbourhoods to a different degree and extent but becomes prominent in the context of the pandemic with a view to the opportunities to comply with the anti-covid measures. Lack of water has been a problem for some households in the 10 surveyed neighbourhoods even before the declared state of emergency: 23 households with about 102 members (5.7%) have no access to water at all and 118 households with 448 members (25.0%) have an outside water tap. However, the issue is much more serious in some neighbourhoods and affects a considerably larger number of the residents: e. g. 20.3% of the members of the surveyed households in Predel neighbourhood in the town of Blagoevgrad have no access to water; 44.6% of the members of the examined households in Shesti neighbourhood in Nova Zagora, 41.1% in Svoboda neighbourhood in Maglizh and 37.4% in Carmen neighbourhood in Kazanlak have only an outside tap.
Another challenge related to the observation of the measures for isolation and quarantine is related to the overcrowded housing. There only one bedroom in about ¼ of the surveyed households.
DISTANCE LEARNING… “WITH HANDOUTS FROM THE MEDIATOR”
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the introduced distance learning, the share of children in the surveyed communities who had their own personal computer/tablet stands slightly in excess of 40%. During this period one in 10 school-age children has received a tablet from school, an NGO or a private individual and 10% more have received printed learning materials provided by mediators or pastors. Nevertheless, almost a fifth of the students in the surveyed communities did not have the technical means and were not provided with learning materials.
The data from the study show that an indirect effect of the imposed restrictive measures on the overall health status of the population can be expected. Limited access to medical care during an emergency situation has a direct impact on the immunization of the youngest children. The data for the 10 surveyed locations show that about half of the children in the age group 0–7 years in the surveyed households subject to vaccination according to the current Immunization Calendar of the Republic of Bulgaria have a interrupted immunization schedule for about 9 months.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD STEPPED UP TO HELP. GENEROSITY IN PEOPLE FOUND ITS EXPRESSION”
The most common model of support in the concerned neighbourhoods during the pandemic has been help from neighbours/fellow neighbourhood residents. Support to the people in need has been also provided by representatives of NGOs and religious communities.
Municipalities mainly helped provide masks and disinfectants as well as food products.
Health mediators stand out, who have actively helped the institutions and the neighbourhood residents: they provided them with personal protective means and disinfectants; assisted the Red Cross in the distribution and handing out of personal protective means, disinfectants and food to the severely materially deprived people in the neighbourhoods and distributed learning materials to the children.
Approximately 60% of the respondents shared that no-one helped community members during the state of emergency and 73% shared the same about the period following the state of emergency.
Anti-covid measures should be applied by guaranteeing equal and non-discriminatory treatment of all citizens and the competent authorities should enhance monitoring and control mechanisms to prevent the risk of discrimination.
What is needed to build and maintain trust in institutions, particularly in emergency situations, is communication between the representatives of institutions and citizens that is free of prejudice and delivered in a comprehensible language.
The key measures to support the people affected by the pandemic include the following: setting up compensation schemes for extremely low-income people that are not included in the labour market and providing additional programmes for retraining and readjustment to the labour market for the long-term unemployed. In addition, enhanced control and incentives to comply with the requirements of labour and social security law are needed. Support to children from vulnerable groups should include provision of technical means (a laptop, a tablet) and Internet connection for them to take part in distance learning.
Social workers and heath mediators should enjoy the guaranteed status of “first-line workers” during the pandemic and the financial incentives for them should be supplemented with measures for professional development and support such as training, supervision and intervision, etc.
Investment in the development and upgrading the infrastructure of Roma neighbourhoods is needed in the long run to ensure equal access to social infrastructure and services.
About the research:
The study was carried out by a team of experts of Open Society Institute – Sofia under the Roma Health Scholarship Program (for Roma university students in medical colleges and universities) with the financial support of the Public Health Program of Open Society Foundations. The field studies were carried out in the period from 20 October to 10 December 2020 in 9 Roma neighbourhoods and a village1 and they covered 492 interviewed members of households of 1,794 persons in total, 77 participants in the focus groups in the local communities and 51 interviewed experts from the municipal administration, Regional Health Inspectorates (RHI), doctors, health mediators, pastors and NGOs. For interpretation of the findings, the following limitations have to be taken into account: the data are valid only about the 10 surveyed locations and not for the entire Roma population in Bulgaria. Due to the random sample of the househods and the respondents, the data on the level of certain neighborhood or village might be perceived as representative. However, the confidence intervals of the estimates are wide due to the relatively small sample size at each of the 10 sites.
Full text of the report COVID-19 in Roma neighbourhoods in Bulgaria (March – December 2020).
For more information:
Dimitar Dimitrov, research team leader
 For the purpose of this study, the term Roma has been applied, as per the National Roma Integration Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria (2012–2020), adopted by the Parliament, according to which the term “Roma” shall be a term “covering both Bulgarian citizens in a vulnerable social and economic situation, who identify themselves as Roma, and citizens in a similar situation, who have been identified as Roma by the surrounding community regardless of the way the latter identify themselves”.