Roma mistrust in governments is an obstacle to COVID-19 recovery

To convince Roma in Europe to take up the vaccine, governments need to take steps to build trust.

A Roma activist carries food donation during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Miskolc, Hungary April 30, 2020. . [Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

As countries across Europe race each other to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19 in the hopes of controlling the spread of the deadly virus and restoring some sense of normality, there is a danger that our already vulnerable and marginalised Roma communities will fall through the cracks.

There are more than 12 million Roma in Europe, making up the continent’s largest minority. In some European countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, Roma comprise almost 10 percent of the population. Therefore, if Europe is to defeat COVID-19, it is essential for Roma communities to take up the vaccine.

However, a deep-rooted mistrust in public institutions is causing many Roma across the continent to refuse the vaccine. Indeed, only nine percent of the Roma population in Hungary and 11.5 percent in North Macedonia said that they plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.

High levels of vaccine hesitancy among Roma is a threat not only to the wellbeing of this long-suffering minority group but also the entire European population. If a significant number of Roma refuse to get vaccinated, the virus can spread widely among our communities, and new, more transmissible and deadly variants may emerge. This would pose a risk not only to us, the Roma, but everyone in Europe and across the world.

To avoid such a scenario, European governments must swiftly and effectively address the three root causes of vaccine hesitancy in Roma communities.

The first of these causes is a collective experience of neglect. Governments across the continent have long been refusing to listen to the desperate pleas of our people for basic public services such as access to clean drinking water, healthcare and housing. This indifference and neglect have left Roma unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 – it has been almost impossible to stop the spread of the virus in overcrowded homes and settlements that lack access to water, sewage and electricity. Many Roma are now suspicious of the vaccine offered to them by governments that for too long refused to respect their most basic rights.

The second cause of vaccine hesitancy among Roma is the mistreatment we experienced at the hands of European health institutions for decades. Romani women in Europe, for instance, have been subjected to forced sterilisation for over 50 years – most notoriously in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is therefore not surprising that numerous Romani woman now fear that the COVID-19 vaccine being offered to them is yet another sterilisation tool, and refuse to take it.

And the mistreatment of Roma by Europe’s health institutions is not limited to the arena of reproductive health, either. A Gallup study commissioned by Open Society Roma Initiatives Office (RIO) conducted in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Serbia found that some 44 percent of medical professionals in these countries are biased against the Roma. Moreover, 38 percent of the medical professionals participating in the survey said they support segregating Roma patients in separate wards. More than one in 10, meanwhile, reported that they are aware that some of their colleagues treat Roma patients with less respect. Roma, who faced routine discrimination from public healthcare providers for years, are now understandably reluctant to participate in the COVID-19 vaccination drive.

The third reason behind the high levels of vaccine hesitancy among Europe’s Roma is the racially motivated violence we have long been experiencing on the continent. Roma in Europe still remember the genocide our communities have been subjected to during WWII. Moreover, we are still facing state-sanctioned violence in the form of arbitrary detentions, forced and unlawful evictions, and abuse by security forces in many European countries, from Bulgaria and Hungary to Italy and Serbia.

As a result, many Roma in Europe whose interactions with governments have always been shaped by oppression, discrimination and violence are susceptible to conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine being a deadly “population control tool”.

In order to convince Roma communities to take up the vaccine, European governments need to acknowledge and address all three of these deep-rooted problems. And they also need to accept that communication, not blunt force, is the way to change Roma attitudes towards vaccines. Any hardline government actions, such as restricting the movements of the non-immunised or excluding them from the labour market, would only worsen the situation.

Before COVID-19, Roma communities in Europe were already struggling on the margins of society. The pandemic, however, transformed our situation into a humanitarian catastrophe. Life is now harder and harsher for Roma in Europe than ever before. Many Roma children who were able to attend school before the pandemic have regressed significantly during lockdown – they were not able to participate in remote learning, because they did not have access to computers, internet and reliable electricity. Some of them may never catch up to their more privileged peers, or even drop out of school. Roma who made a living working in street markets, agriculture, tourism, arts and entertainment sectors before the pandemic are also in a desperate situation. Without government support, they may never be able to regain their footing.

Without immunisation, Roma would not be able to leave the pandemic behind and start rebuilding their lives.

Roma civic groups across Europe are campaigning to increase awareness and convince Roma communities that COVID-19 vaccines would not harm but help them. Opre Roma in Serbia, Avaja in North Macedonia and Aresel in Romania are working with Roma media and medical professionals to confront disinformation.

But civil society organisations cannot resolve this problem on their own. We need the governments, public institutions and also respected cultural figures and religious leaders to address Roma directly and help ease their concerns and suspicions about the vaccine.

Roma communities are hesitating to take the vaccine because they do not trust governments and health institutions. So the problem can only be sustainably resolved if European governments take the necessary steps to address the root causes of our collective pain and anger.

We have seen some limited and short-term – but promising – progress on this in the Western Balkans. For example, Montenegro and Serbia have provided critical aid such as water, food and disinfectants to Roma communities during the pandemic. Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, provided Roma children with technical facilities and extracurricular support to carry on with their education. The Albanian government offered Roma temporary financial support and relief from further indebtedness. These are small steps in the right direction.

But such temporary relief efforts will neither get us out of this pandemic nor end the suffering of our communities. To ensure the success of their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, and the wellbeing of Roma, governments need to make bolder moves and implement longer-term policies to rebuild Roma trust in governments.

The choice facing European governments today is simple: They will either deepen Roma mistrust in public institutions by continuing with business as usual, or start building a new dialogue and relationship with our communities by offering us the long-term protection and support we desperately need.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.