As countries in Europe rush to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19 in hopes of controlling the spread of the deadly virus and restoring some sense of normalcy, there is a risk that our already vulnerable and marginalized Roma communities. pass between the stitches of the net.
There are over 12 million Roma in Europe, constituting the largest minority on the continent. In some European countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, Roma make up almost 10 percent of the population. Therefore, if Europe is to defeat COVID-19, it is essential that Roma communities adopt the vaccine.
However, a deep-rooted mistrust in public institutions drives many Roma across the continent to refuse the vaccine. Indeed, only nine percent of the Roma population in Hungary and 11.5% in North Macedonia said they plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
The high levels of reluctance to vaccinate among the Roma pose a threat not only to the well-being of this long-suffering minority group, but also to the entire European population. If a significant number of Roma refuse to be vaccinated, the virus can spread widely among our communities and new, more transmissible and deadly variants can emerge. This would constitute a risk not only for us Roma, but for everyone in Europe and in the world.
To avoid such a scenario, European governments must quickly and effectively address the three root causes of vaccine reluctance in Roma communities.
The first of these causes is a collective experience of neglect. Governments across the continent have long refused to heed our people’s desperate appeals for basic public services such as access to clean water, health care and housing. This indifference and neglect has left Roma unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 – it has been almost impossible to stop the spread of the virus in homes and overcrowded neighborhoods that do not have access to water, sewers and electricity. Many Roma are now suspicious of the vaccine offered to them by governments which have refused for too long to respect their most basic rights.
The second cause of reluctance to vaccinate among Roma is the mistreatment we have suffered from European health institutions for decades. Roma women in Europe, for example, have been subjected to forced sterilization for over 50 years, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is therefore not surprising that many Roma women now fear that the COVID-19 vaccine offered to them is another sterilization tool, and refuse to take it.
And the mistreatment of Roma by European health institutions is not limited to reproductive health either. A Gallup study commissioned by the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office (RIO) conducted in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Serbia found that some 44 percent of healthcare professionals in these countries have prejudices against the Roma. In addition, 38 percent of healthcare professionals participating in the survey said they supported the segregation of Roma patients into separate wards. More than one in ten, meanwhile, said he knew some of his colleagues treat Roma patients with less respect. Roma, who have suffered systematic discrimination from public healthcare providers for years, are now understandably reluctant to participate in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
The third reason behind the high levels of reluctance to vaccinate among the Roma in Europe is the racially motivated violence that we have long suffered on the continent. The Roma of Europe still remember the genocide of which our communities were victims during the Second World War. In addition, we still face state-sanctioned violence in the form of arbitrary detentions, forced and unlawful expulsions and abuses by the security forces in many European countries, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. Hungary to Italy and Serbia.
As a result, many Roma in Europe whose interactions with governments have historically been shaped by oppression, discrimination and violence are sensitive to conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 vaccine is a ‘tool for population control. ” mortal.
In order to convince Roma communities to get vaccinated, European governments need to recognize and address these three deeply rooted issues. And they must also accept that communication, not brute force, is the way to change Roma attitudes towards vaccines. Any intransigent government action, such as restricting the movement of the unimmunized or excluding them from the labor market, would only make matters worse.
Before COVID-19, Roma communities in Europe were already struggling on the fringes of society. The pandemic, however, turned our situation into a humanitarian catastrophe. Life is now harder and harder for Roma in Europe than ever before. Many Roma children who could go to school before the pandemic regressed dramatically during the lockdown – they were unable to participate in distance learning because they lacked access to computers, the internet and internet. reliable electricity. Some of them may never catch up with their more privileged peers, or even drop out of school. Roma who made their living working in street markets, agriculture, tourism, the arts and entertainment before the pandemic are also in dire straits. Without government support, they may never be able to regain a foothold.
Without vaccination, Roma would not be able to leave the pandemic behind and start rebuilding their lives.
Roma civic groups across Europe are leading a campaign to raise awareness and convince Roma communities that COVID-19 vaccines would not harm them but would help them. Opre Roma in Serbia, Avaja in North Macedonia and Aresel in Romania are working with Roma media and health professionals to fight disinformation.
But civil society organizations cannot solve this problem on their own. We need governments, public institutions as well as respected cultural figures and religious leaders to speak directly to Roma and help allay their concerns and suspicions about the vaccine.
Roma communities are reluctant to get vaccinated because they do not trust governments and health institutions. The problem can therefore only be solved in a lasting way if European governments take the necessary steps to tackle the root causes of our collective pain and anger.
We have seen limited and short-term – but promising – progress in this area in the Western Balkans. For example, Montenegro and Serbia provided essential aid such as water, food and disinfectants to Roma communities during the pandemic. Bosnia and Herzegovina, for its part, provided Roma children with technical facilities and extracurricular support to continue their education. The Albanian government offered the Roma temporary financial support and debt relief. These are small steps in the right direction.
But such temporary relief efforts will not get us out of this pandemic or end the suffering of our communities. To ensure the success of their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and the well-being of Roma, governments must take bolder steps and implement longer-term policies to restore Roma confidence in governments.
The choice facing European governments today is simple: they will either deepen the Roma’s mistrust of public institutions by continuing their usual activities, or start to establish a new dialogue and new relationships with our communities by offering us the the long-term protection and support we desperately need.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.