Note from LeftEast editors: This is a slightly edited version of an earlier text published in Hungarian by Mérce. During July and August, Mérce conducted more than a dozen interviews and background discussions with Roma and non-Roma activists, educators, academics and journalists to build a picture of how the Roma community in Hungary has been affected by the coronavirus epidemic and the crisis it has brought. Mérce also took part in panel discussions, field visits and demonstrations, and attended conferences on how the Roma community has weathered the past year and a half and how it is preparing for the expected fourth wave of the epidemic.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Roma community could only rely on selfless donors and the work of self-sacrificing activists.
“Wherever the virus went, it took victims. The enclosed nature of some Roma communities, the ghettoization and isolation provided a certain degree of protection. But soon after the outbreak started, we already knew that if the virus got into a community, it would devastate it,” said Aladár Horváth, President of the Roma Parlament civil rights association, summarizing the experience of the past year and a half.
We can only infer that Roma communities were more severely affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) than non-Roma people. However, it is clear that the pandemic, with all its consequences, had a catastrophic impact on the poorest communities, including the Roma.
It is essential to emphasize the difference between the two. To correctly grasp the problem, we also need to distinguish between the situation of people living in extreme poverty and that of Roma living in extreme poverty. Although they are all victims of ethnicist policies, Roma are also victims of racist oppression, even more so in times of the pandemic, as we shall see below. As one of our interlocutors summed this up: “of course, no one knows who a gypsy is. But when it comes to not letting someone in or sending them to the back of the queue, suddenly everyone knows who the gypsy is”.
Victims and scapegoats
Under the law, neither the main institution of the Hungarian health system in charge, the National Public Health Centre (NPHC, Hungarian: Nemzeti Népegészségügyi Központ, NNK) – the successor to the State Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ), which was liquidated two years before the outbreak –, nor the operational task force set up to combat the coronavirus can keep records of the nationality of infected persons and coronavirus deaths.
However, international examples show that many more members of marginalized minorities were infected and died in the pandemic compared to members of the ethnic majority.
For example, in New York, members of the Hispanic community and African Americans died from the disease at a higher rate than white people. According to a World Bank analysis, COVID-19 has hit – and continues to hit – poorer countries and poorer areas in wealthier states the hardest. Generally speaking – as many studies show – ethnic minority communities are at greater risk of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.
As early as April 2020, the rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe warned that, after the elderly and those with underlying diseases, members of the Roma minority are the most at risk of contracting the disease. Roma organizations in several European countries have reported increased discrimination, systemic far-right attacks on Roma communities, and the disastrous impact of neglect, from France to northern Macedonia and Turkey.
During the pandemic, the Roma community in Serbia became even more marginalized. After the case of Stanislav Tomáš in the Czech Republic, who died as a result of brutal police action, Roma in Serbia felt threatened by the police. Aladár Horváth reported that there have been mass deaths among Gábor Gypsies in the Târgu Mures area in Romania. The situation of the Roma in Romania was further aggravated by the fact that the press blamed the spread of the virus on Roma returning from Western European countries, and issued sensationalist reports of the deaths (which also happened in Hungary, such as in the case of the funeral of László Kozák, aka Grófo).
European Roma were both the victims and the scapegoats of the pandemic.
The many faces of the horror of death
It is easy to see why people living in extreme poverty, including Roma, are particularly vulnerable. Even outside of the pandemic, they find it more difficult to access health care, and, as a result of persistent discrimination and years or decades of accumulated grievances and bad experiences, they distrust health or social workers and the state in general. Furthermore, they do not have the resources to get medicine and vitamins when they need them.
They are also more easily targeted by alarmist news: first, because they lack access to reliable sources of information and are not experienced in selecting them, so they are left to read the endless stream of news circulating on social media. Second, as they do not have access to any mass media sources of information, they can rely on personal reports alone.
And so it was that Aladár Horváth’s warnings at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic soon became a fulfilled prophecy: “It’s almost certain that the coronavirus pandemic – and the social catastrophe following in its wake – will continue to claim most of its victims from among the most vulnerable. The elderly, the homeless, the sickly and weakened Roma ghetto dwellers – children and adults alike! – could face the horror of death anytime!”
Hungary’s Roma population of around 600-850,000 – a significant proportion of whom live in settlements of less than 2,000 people, in slums or ghettos, where GP services have generally been closed, and the nearest hospital is a long way away – had to confront the many faces of the “horror of death”.
Even before the pandemic, the survival practices and habits that sustained the daily lives of people living in extreme poverty – including Roma communities – were a response to a permanent crisis in the absence of assistance. Now it was clear that these practices have become impossible to carry out overnight.
As one conference on the subject discussed, local governments ‘disappeared’ for long weeks during the pandemic, or were reduced to ‘bureaucratic inertia’ by self-contradictory, fast-changing instructions from ‘the center’. As a result, both direct assistance (distribution of food parcels, vitamin packs, cleaning products, masks) and gestures of self-organization, mostly aimed at overcoming this forced ‘inertia’, were often delayed or not carried out.
This was particularly the case for those who, for example, had to put a red warning sign in their window to alert to the possibility of infection, and were forced to live their home life under strict police surveillance for days.
In a discussion at the conference on Roma women in public life, organized by the National Democratic Institute, Jenő Setét, President of the Idetartozunk human rights association, said that being quarantined led to actual starvation in some cases. Families in which several people fell ill and those who had to switch to online education overnight while struggling with electricity shortages were also in a dire situation.
However, we know of two specific cases where the government complied with calls from Roma activists and organizations. Two of the nine points of the crisis package drafted by the Roma Parlament Association in March 2020 (free internet for students, moratorium on loan repayments) were among the government’s measures. And following a petition calling for a free medicine package, Miklós Kásler, the Minister of Human Resources, ordered that the drug Favipiravir, which can relieve symptoms of a mild coronavirus illness, be available free of charge on prescription.
Miklós Vecsei, Deputy Ministerial Commissioner of the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for the integration of the 300 poorest Hungarian settlements, and Vice President of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, recently commented on how people living in extreme poverty were affected by the pandemic: “The first wave was hardly felt at all, the second wave was felt partially, and the third wave more so. Market fluctuations affect those living in poverty in a more slow-paced manner.” And in another interview, he said that “…apart from distance learning or digital education, there hasn’t been a very big change, everyday life has been the same struggle in these municipalities. People are struggling with very different problems.”
But those we spoke to have a different view of the “market fluctuations” and the “changes” they have undergone since March 2020.
Ernő Kadét of the Roma Press Center said that people living in the slums had already lost their livelihoods last spring, which triggered a “domino effect”. Many people could not pay their electricity bills and were not given any respite, so they either got into debt or were left in the dark last spring. And starting from this spring, it was the moratorium that put them in a difficult situation.
According to Aladár Horváth, “The government has completely given up on the bottom fifth of the society, the poorest villages, the smallest villages, even though this is where a significant part of its voter base comes from”. And even if they did provide support, “it was in secret, suppressed by frequent anti-Gypsy government propaganda”.
The Hungarian Defence Forces did indeed send vaccination buses to the most vulnerable settlements in Hungary. But the fact that the coronavirus did not wreak even greater havoc among people living in extreme poverty and deprivation, including Roma communities – especially during the third wave, which put Hungary’s rate of deaths per million people on the top of the list globally for weeks on end – is not due to the government response. It seems that the Roma and non-Roma activists, selfless donors, and a few organizations that provided information, good words, help and support to those in need were the ones who made the difference. Likewise, thanks to these NGOs, many of the doubtful and distrustful have taken up the vaccine.
This report is about them.
During July and August, Mérce conducted more than a dozen interviews and background discussions with Roma and non-Roma activists, educators, academics and journalists to build a picture of how the Roma community in Hungary has been affected by the coronavirus epidemic and the crisis it has brought. We also took part in panel discussions, field visits and demonstrations, and attended conferences on how the Roma community has weathered the past year and a half and how it is preparing for the expected fourth wave of the epidemic.
The street moves into the hospital
“Well, look. I can’t describe the spring wave of the pandemic as anything other than chaos and hell, and everyone thought it’s the end of the world and we’re all gonna die. In roughly three months, eight people in my family died, three of them were my very close relatives. We were going from funeral to funeral, while no more than fifty people were allowed to attend the funerals. But the Roma community is much more than that. After all, when someone dies, it is not just the closest relatives who want to support them, but everyone. People were not allowed to live their own culture, so they couldn’t let go of their dead.” – said Zsanett Bitó-Balogh, community organizer at the Roma Interest Group of Nagykálló (NÁRÉSZ) and member of the Civil College Foundation’s (CCF) System Level Working Group.
Nagykálló, a town in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, is one of the worst affected by the third wave of the outbreak. However, exact figures are not available, as the data requested by K-Monitor and published four months after the request only refers to the first year of the pandemic. According to these figures, 443 people were infected, and 31 people died in the municipalities of nearly 10 000 inhabitants in the months leading up to March. But all those we spoke to in Nagykálló confirmed that the third wave was the most severe in the four slums in the city. Almost everyone fell ill, and many people died.
Zsanett Bitó-Balogh – who also lost her cousin, Lajos “Paci” Balogh, a Roma activist and local government representative in Józsefváros – said that a “Kálló street” had been created in the hospital.
In the Gödrök colony in Nagykálló, 20.000 HUF is already an invaluable sum. But if someone fell ill, they would have had to spend at least that much on medicine and vitamins. This Roma segregation area in a dried-up lake bed is home to around 400-500 people, mostly Oláh Gypsies. Everything is far away: the city centre, the Sántha Kálmán Specialist Hospital, where general medical care is provided, and the Nyíregyháza Hospital, where the more seriously ill are referred.
People live mainly by “scrounging”, i.e. doing seasonal work: picking apples and peppers or working as day laborers. Many people still travel to work the way of the “black train” – the weekly, long-distance commute of the old days, although nowadays they get to Budapest in an organized way, by car. A large part of the colony makes their living from ‘the iron business’, with many people collecting scrap metal on horse-drawn carts. However, these income-generating activities are generally undeclared, meaning that those who lost their livelihoods last spring could not even count on the unprecedentedly meager unemployment benefit, in Hungary renamed as the ‘job-seekers allowance’.
The health of Roma in Nagykálló is very poor. According to a 2013 survey, the infant mortality rate among Roma is much higher, with Roma people living on average ten years less than non-Roma people. Among Roma, “a staggering number were anemic”, with many suffering from high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels.
It’s not just the health of Roma in Kálló that is worrying, but also their relationship with healthcare professionals. According to Miklósné Arató, the author of the study, “prejudice is one of the defining elements of the client relationship between the health authorities and the Roma.”
During the pandemic, the people of Nagykálló could simply not afford to stay at home. They had to draw water from the well, go to the shop, and go to the soup kitchen because no food was delivered from the town. During the third wave, outbreaks quickly developed around the public well and the soup kitchen that also served as a community center.
The Nagykálló Roma Interest Organization (NÁRÉSZ) – founded in 2019 after Mihály Zoltán Orosz, the organizer of anti-Semitic demonstrations and notorious for his “Érpatak model”- authoritarian law and order policies to combat crime and unemployment, started harassing locals and then won a seat in the local council – realized early on that the Roma of Nagykálló do not have the necessary resources to fight the virus. Subsequently, Zsanett Bitó-Balogh and her team launched a campaign on the aHang platform called “One more bite”. In a short time, they managed to raise 18 million HUF for a total of 12 disadvantaged municipalities.
In Nagykálló, food was distributed on four occasions, while the local government initially only had enough to distribute 500 HUF food vouchers once the first wave subsided. Later on, NÁRÉSZ, together with the previously quoted Ernő Kadét of the Roma Press Center, launched an even more extensive program. The “Vaccinate to Live” campaign, which eventually involved eight organizations and the National Roma Self-Government, saw 14,000 Roma vaccinated nationwide.
Meanwhile, an Info campaign was launched to help those confused by the conflicting information about the coronavirus. Thanks to the programs launched by NÁRÉSZ, even those who did not have access to the internet were able to register for the vaccine, and it was now possible to get vaccinated as a family, dispelling many fears within Roma communities that were subject to misinformation.
Nagykálló was soon featured on the front pages of Hungarian newspapers. From May onwards, not a week went by without at least one TV station or newspaper, as well as many researchers, appearing in the Gödrök slum. People who had lived in obscurity before and during the pandemic were now “famous”. In the end, the people of Nagykálló decided not to receive any more crews in the settlement.
Even though 70 percent of the residents of the Nagykálló slums had been vaccinated by August, Zsanett Bitó-Balogh says that the fight cannot stop at the beginning of the 4th wave.
“The Roma here are not in a good situation. Perhaps the next wave could be prevented if masks were reintroduced or people were given vitamins. People are mentally broken, they are very scared of getting sick again and losing the remaining elderly, but maybe they believe that today’s problem is today’s problem and tomorrow’s problem is tomorrow’s problem. They can spend this week or two in relative peace.”
Everything that Zsanett Bitó-Balogh told us is in line with the research that has been done on Roma communities over the past year.
Water from the tap
At the previously mentioned three-day conference held by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in August, Roma activist Judit Bari presented the results of her research, conducted between May and August 2020 with more than 2,000 people. In her presentation, Judit Bari stressed that Roma access to public services and utilities has dramatically decreased.
74% of households reported not having access to hospital care. It is revealing that around 40% of Roma households are in need of immediate financial assistance, with one-fifth unable to pay their utility bills during the spring. 10% of the Roma households surveyed have no access to running water (and in many places, there is only one tap in the house, with a tin bowl underneath), while 36% have no bathroom or toilet.
Thus, those who were quarantined had two options: either leave their homes and risk a fine, or die of thirst.
Judit Bari also reported that the rate of hate crimes, as well as exclusion and discrimination, has increased during the pandemic. For example, in some municipalities, food was not delivered to Roma families as part of the social meals scheme, but was delivered to non-Roma families. 21% of Roma said they had personally experienced racism or discrimination, and 62% had witnessed discrimination against Roma citizens.
Although only 9 percent of the Roma community indicated that they would take up the vaccine before the vaccination started, Zsuzsanna Orsós, who conducted a comprehensive survey on attitudes towards vaccination among Roma in December 2020, indicated in an interview with Mérce that the perception of the vaccine among Roma has also improved. As she said, the main reason for distrust of vaccines was not fear, but the fact that many people did not know how to register for the vaccine and who to ask for help.
One of the most exciting findings of the soon-to-be-released research was that more than half of the Roma women who responded – compared to 39% percent of the men – disagreed that the vaccine was effective. Furthermore, nearly 90% of women worried about the consequences of the vaccine. This may also be due to the fact that it is usually Roma women with young children who interact with various health, municipal and social institutions, meaning that women are the most vulnerable to discrimination, which undermines their faith in the health system.
The question of who will provide vaccines to Roma people is still to be answered across Europe. According to Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), the willingness of Roma across Europe to be vaccinated is very low, and most governments do not seem to care much about them. Slovakia has set up special teams to care for isolated communities, but other countries have not paid much attention to the Roma minority. This is despite the fact that the European Commission’s vaccination directive calls on the Member States to prioritize vulnerable social groups, a category that includes the Roma population in all European countries.
Just as the disease had before, it was now the vaccination that triggered a wave of racist hatred. Bulgarian activists, for example, reported that thousands of liters of pesticide had been sprayed on Roma-majority villages from helicopters and planes. Radoslov Stoyanov, a representative of the Human Rights Group of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, said that these incidents were clearly racially motivated, as only villages with a high Roma population were ‘disinfected’ through such methods.
Limited access to the internet, smart devices, and, more generally, energy poverty, has made life even more difficult for people living in poverty and extreme poverty, including Roma families. Although, for example, the public digital education platform KRÉTA, the cornerstone of online learning in Hungary, requires broadband internet access. To help us understand the spatial disparities, a 2017 baseline survey in Bag and Dány found that only over a quarter of Roma families have at least one computer, and only one in five households have internet access.
With these results, more central Pest County municipalities are still ahead of Roma communities in economically more depressed Eastern Hungary. Recent surveys show a significant difference in the telecommunication coverage of Hungarian counties, with residents of smaller municipalities accounting for 36% of non-internet users. In Hungary, just over 80 percent of households still had access to the internet in the year before the outbreak.
Electricity shortages were a problem even in municipalities that had been spared the pandemic and the following crisis. And it was not only primary and secondary school pupils who were affected.
Aranka Rostás, program organizer in Baks (Csongrád-Csanád county) and activist of the 1 Magyarország (1 Hungary) Initiative, spoke to Mérce about the serious additional consequences of energy poverty for some families:
“Today in Hungary, 196,000 children live in energy poverty, nearly 1 million are on the verge of being disconnected and 100,000 households only have a prepayment meter. So there is energy poverty in Hungary today, just when the online space is gaining ground almost everywhere. Our activists in Northern Hungary have reported cases where children have only been able to participate in online education ‘on paper’. And because these children couldn’t keep up with their peers, the state wanted to take them out of their families”. Worrying that the government authorities can take the children away from them predominantly affects the families living in poverty, increasing their distrust of state agencies.
“Already at the beginning of the pandemic there was a problem with the supply of equipment for students, as well as with the internet access,” said Aranka Varga, a teacher at the Wlislocki Henrik College of the University of Pécs, who also has insight into the work of the Pécs Evangelical Roma College, which aims to educate Roma intellectuals. The college provided computers for socially deprived students to attend classes from home. It also proved helpful that, based on a rector’s concession, the students were not forced to leave the dormitories.
But for many, this latter development, the moving out of the dormitories, was cause for concern. As we know, both last spring and in November, students had less than a day to leave their accommodation. István Orsós, a mathematics and physics graduate student, was sent home during the first wave of the pandemic to Istvándi in Somogy County.
“When the pandemic broke out and I had to move back home because there was nothing else, it changed a lot of things for me. What I was used to, and had been used to for four years in Pécs, disappeared, and I had to go home to the middle of nowhere.”
In the end, István put a positive spin on this slide back into ‘timelessness’. He now sees this period as an opportunity to reflect on who he is and what he wants, and on his relationship with the communities of Pécs and Istvándi.
At the time of our interview, he was working at the EFOTT festival and was preparing to continue mentoring the students he had mentored two years before in the Tanítsunk Magyarországért (Teaching for Hungary) government-supported program.
A different framework
There is another way to tell the story of the past almost two years.
In this framework, all the efforts made by Roma and non-Roma activists in the past year and a half and before – against government headwind – would be eclipsed. It would be only a temporary flare-up, this coming together of communities at a time of greatest trouble, which we have tried to report here: the work of NÁRÉSZ, the System Level Working Group, the Roma Parlament, the Roma Press Center, and other organizations in Cserhát, Tiszabura, Baks, Nagykálló and elsewhere.
Before the pandemic, 2020 started off to be the year of incitement against Roma. In May 2019, the Curia of Hungary upheld the final decision of the Debrecen Court of Appeal in the Gyöngyöspata school segregation case. According to the decision, the state had to pay 99 million HUF in compensation to the 60 Roma students from Gyöngyöspata who were unlawfully segregated from their peers and provided with a lower level of education at the Nekcsei Demeter Primary School in Gyöngyöspata between 2004 and 2017.
In January 2020, at the first government briefing of the year, in connection with segregation and lawsuits for the compensations for time spent in overcrowded prisons (what the government calls the “prison business”), Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that “it is not segregation” if children with poorer intellectual abilities – among whom he said the Roma are in the majority – have to attend separate classes. The Prime Minister also said that the “Soros network” was behind the compensation case and that the verdict violated people’s “sense of justice”. In February, the government announced a new national consultation, surveying people on the “prison business” and the compensation for Roma in Gyöngyöspata.
The “Idetartozunk” Association and other organizations held a protest against the statements of the Prime Minister and other members of the government. Jenő Setét, President of the association, said in an interview with Mérce that “Viktor Orbán has set his far-right dogs free”, and Aladár Horváth filed a complaint against the Prime Minister, which was later dismissed by the prosecutor’s office.
In April, the government wanted to introduce the so-called “lex Gyöngyöspata” into the Public Education Act, which aimed to ensure that not only would those who had not received a proper education receive financial compensation, but that those who had been victims of years of discrimination in the same schools would have to go back to school. The amendment goes against EU directives, among others. At the same time, the government decided to set up a “school police”.
In March, the first cases of coronavirus were identified in Hungary, and the whole country turned its attention to the outbreak data.
As if nothing had happened in the meantime, in July 2021, after the third wave of the outbreak had subsided, the Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) far-right movement held a “show of force” in Jászapáti, a small town in Central-East Hungary. Against the anti-Roma and hate-mongering march, several Roma and non-Roma organizations held a counter-demonstration in front of the Our Homeland office in Józsefváros.
Ágnes Daróczi gave the most memorable speech of the counter-protest, starting her speech with this question:
How much longer?
The author would like to express his gratitude to Zsanett Bitó-Balogh, Aladár Horváth, Zsuzsanna Orsós, Aranka Rostás and Aranka Varga, who, in addition to the interviews, provided tremendous help in writing the report. Mérce will publish the interviews conducted during the writing of the report in September and October.
This article was translated into English by Noémi Bíró, as part of a cooperation between Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet).
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Árpád Kocsis (1988, Kishegyes, Yugoslavia), writer, translator, philosopher, journalist-editor of Mérce, the Hungarian Leftist online magazine. A former student of the University of Novi Sad, University of Belgrade, University of Vienna and University of Pécs.