Romans’ mistrust of the government is an obstacle to COVID-19 recovery | Coronavirus pandemic

As European countries race to vaccinate their people against COVID-19 in order to control the spread of the deadly virus and restore a sense of normalcy, our already fragile and marginalized Roma community may be in trouble.

There are more than 12 million Roma in Europe, making it the largest ethnic minority on the European continent. In some European countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, Roma make up almost 10% of the total population. Therefore, if Europe is to defeat COVID-19, the Roman community must be vaccinated.

However, deep-rooted distrust of public institutions has caused many Roma on the African continent to refuse vaccinations. In fact, only 9% of Hungarian Roma and 11.5% of North Macedonians said they plan to get vaccinated when the COVID-19 vaccine is available.

The high degree of hesitation of the Roma on vaccines not only threatens the well-being of this long-suffering minority group, but also the well-being of the entire European population. If a large number of Roma refuse to be vaccinated, the virus will spread widely in our communities, and new, more transmissible and lethal variants may emerge. This will not only bring risks to us Roma, but also to everyone in Europe and around the world.

To avoid this situation, European governments must quickly and effectively address the three fundamental reasons why the Roma community is hesitant to vaccines.

The first of these reasons is the neglected collective experience. For a long time, governments on the African continent have refused to listen to our people’s desperate calls for access to basic public services such as clean drinking water, medical care and housing. This indifference and neglect makes it impossible for Roma to protect themselves from COVID-19—it is almost impossible to stop the virus from spreading in overcrowded homes and settlements lacking water, sewage, and electricity. Many Roma people now doubt the vaccine provided to them by the government, which has long refused to respect their most basic rights.

The second reason why Roma is hesitant about vaccines is the abuse we have suffered at the hands of European health institutions for decades. For example, Roma women in Europe have been forced to sterilize for more than 50 years-most notably in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Therefore, it is not surprising that many Roma women now worry that the COVID-19 vaccine provided to them is another sterilization tool and refuse to accept it.

The abuse of Roma by European health agencies is not limited to the field of reproductive health. A Gallup study commissioned by the Open Society Roma Initiative Office (RIO) in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Serbia found that approximately 44% of medical professionals in these countries are biased against Roma. In addition, 38% of the medical professionals who participated in the survey said they support the isolation of Roma patients in different wards. At the same time, more than one in ten reported that they knew that some of their colleagues had low respect for Roma patients. The Romans have been facing routine discrimination from public health care providers for many years and are now understandably reluctant to participate in COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

The third reason behind the high degree of hesitation of European Roma on vaccines is the ethnically motivated violence we have experienced on the European continent for a long time. The Roma in Europe still remember the genocide our communities suffered during World War II. In addition, in many European countries, from Bulgaria and Hungary to Italy and Serbia, we still face state-sanctioned violence, including arbitrary detention, forced and illegal deportation, and abuse by security forces.

As a result, many Roma in Europe’s interactions with the government have been affected by oppression, discrimination, and violence. They are vulnerable to conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 vaccine is a deadly “population control tool”.

In order to persuade the Roma community to vaccinate, European governments need to recognize and resolve all three deep-rooted problems. They also need to accept communication instead of being blunt, which is the way to change the attitude of Roma towards vaccines. Any tough government action, such as restricting the movement of unvaccinated people or excluding them from the labor market, will only worsen the situation.

Before COVID-19, the Roma communities in Europe were already struggling on the margins of society. However, the pandemic has turned our situation into a humanitarian disaster. The life of the Roma in Europe is now more difficult than ever. Many Roma children who were able to go to school before the pandemic regressed significantly during the lockdown-they could not participate in distance learning because they could not use computers, the Internet, and reliable electricity. Some of them may never catch up with their more privileged peers, or even drop out of school. Before the pandemic, the Roma who made a living on street markets, agriculture, tourism, art, and entertainment were also in a desperate situation. Without government support, they may never be able to regain a foothold.

Without immunization, the Roma will not be able to escape the epidemic and begin to rebuild their lives.

Roma people’s groups across Europe are launching campaigns to raise awareness and persuade the Roma community that the COVID-19 vaccine will not harm them, but will only help them. Serbia’s Opre Roma, North Macedonia’s Avaja and Romania’s Aresel are working with Roma media and medical professionals to combat false information.

But civil society organizations cannot solve this problem on their own. We need governments, public institutions, and respected cultural figures and religious leaders to speak directly to the Roma to help them alleviate their worries and doubts about vaccines.

The Roma community is hesitant to vaccinate because they do not trust the government and health institutions. Therefore, this problem can only be solved sustainably if the European government takes the necessary measures to address the source of our collective pain and anger.

We have already seen some limited and short-term but promising progress in the Western Balkans. For example, Montenegro and Serbia provided important assistance such as water, food and disinfectants to the Roma community during the pandemic. At the same time, Bosnia and Herzegovina provides Roma children with technical facilities and extracurricular support to continue their education. The Albanian government provides temporary financial support and further debt relief to the Roma. These are all small steps in the right direction.

However, this temporary relief work will neither free us from this epidemic nor end the suffering of our community. To ensure the success of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and the well-being of the Roma, the government needs to take bolder steps and implement long-term policies to rebuild the Roma’s trust in the government.

The choice faced by European governments today is simple: they either continue to do business as usual and deepen the distrust of Roma in public institutions, or begin to establish new dialogues and relationship.

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

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