The distrust of gypsies in governments is an obstacle to the recovery of COVID-19 | Coronavirus pandemic

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As countries across Europe compete with each other 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 danger that our already vulnerable Roma communities will marginalized, fall through the cracks. .

There are more than 12 million gypsies in Europe, who constitute the largest minority on the continent. In some European countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, gypsies represent almost 10% of the population. Therefore, if Europe wants to defeat COVID-19, it is essential that Roma communities get the vaccine.

However, a deep-rooted mistrust of public institutions leads many gypsies across the continent to reject the vaccine. In fact, only nine percent of the Roma population in Hungary and 11.5 percent in Northern Macedonia said they plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them.

The high levels of vaccine vaccination among gypsies pose a threat not only to the well-being of this suffering minority group, but also to the entire European population. If a significant number of gypsies refuse to be vaccinated, the virus can spread widely among our communities and new, more transmissible and deadly variants may appear. This would pose a risk not only to us, the gypsies, but to everyone in Europe and around the world.

To avoid this scenario, European governments must quickly and effectively address the three root causes of vaccine hesitation in Roma communities.

The first of these causes is a collective experience of abandonment. Governments across the continent have long refused to listen to the desperate pleas of our people for basic public services, such as access to clean drinking water, medical care and housing. This indifference and neglect have left gypsies unable to protect themselves from COVID-19: it has been almost impossible to stop the spread of the virus to homes and overcrowded settlements that do not have access to water, sewerage and electricity. Many gypsies are wary of the vaccine offered to them by governments that for too long refused to respect their most basic rights.

The second cause of vaccine hesitation among gypsies is the mistreatment we have experienced for decades at the hands of European health institutions. Gypsy women in Europe, for example, have been subjected to forced sterilization for more than 50 years, especially in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is therefore not surprising that many rosemary women now fear that the COVID-19 vaccine offered to them will be another sterilization tool and will refuse to take it.

And the ill-treatment of gypsies by European health institutions is not limited to the field of reproductive health. A Gallup study commissioned by the Open Society Rome Initiatives Office (RIO), conducted in Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Serbia, found that approximately 44% of medical professionals in these countries have a tendency against gypsies. . In addition, 38% of medical professionals who participated in the survey said they support the segregation of gypsy patients in separate wards. Meanwhile, more than one in ten reported that they are aware that some of their colleagues treat gypsy patients with less respect. Gypsies, who for years faced routine discrimination by public health care providers, are now understandably reluctant to participate in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The third reason behind the high levels of vaccine hesitation among European gypsies is the racial violence we have experienced on the continent for a long time. The gypsies of Europe still remember the genocide that our communities suffered during World War II. In addition, we are still facing state-sanctioned violence in the form of arbitrary detentions, forced and illegal evictions and abuses by security forces in many European countries, from Bulgaria and Hungary to Italy and Serbia.

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

To convince gypsy communities to take the vaccine, European governments must recognize and address these three deep-rooted problems. And they must also accept that communication, not forceful force, is the way to change the attitude of gypsies towards vaccines. Any harsh government action, such as restricting the movements of unimmunized people or excluding them from the labor market, would only make the situation worse.

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

Without vaccination, gypsies could not leave the pandemic behind and begin rebuilding their lives.

Gypsy civic groups across Europe are campaigning to raise awareness and convince gypsy communities that COVID-19 vaccines would not harm them, but would help them. Opre Rome in Serbia, Avaja in Northern Macedonia and Aresel in Romania are working with media and gypsy medical professionals to deal with misinformation.

But civil society organizations alone cannot solve this problem. We need governments, public institutions and also respected cultural figures and religious leaders to address gypsies directly and help alleviate their concerns and suspicions about the vaccine.

Gypsy communities are hesitant to get the vaccine because they do not trust governments and health institutions. Therefore, the problem can only be solved in a sustainable way 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 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. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina provided Roma children with technical facilities and extracurricular support to further their education. The Albanian government offered temporary financial aid to gypsies and relief from increased indebtedness. These are small steps in the right direction.

But these temporary relief efforts will neither take us out of this pandemic nor end the suffering of our communities. To ensure the success of their vaccination campaigns against COVID-19 and the well-being of gypsies, governments need to make bolder moves and implement long-term policies to rebuild gypsy confidence in governments.

The choice that European governments have today is simple: either they will deepen the mistrust of gypsies in public institutions by continuing with the usual business, or they will begin to build a new dialogue and relationship with our communities by offering us protection and long-term support we desperately need.

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

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