The current situation in coping with the corona virus has been affecting our daily lives in fundamental ways. Our actual social contacts are being limited, many people have lost their jobs and the threatening economic crisis is already being felt. The most affected groups by the corona crisis are not only seniors and children, but also families living in marginalized Roma communities, especially in the Kecerovsko–olšavský region in eastern Slovakia where we have been engaging our NGO.
That sums up Vera Lackova’s initial interviews on how the CoVid19 lockdown situation is affecting RP members. Františka Ondrášiková and Július Pecha are from the NGO Association for a Better Life, a member of the newly established Roma Partnership, an initiative that had been supported by the Vienna-based ERSTE Foundation. The NGO has been active in the region since 2004 in carrying out its mission: complex development of Roma rural communities.
Františka Ondrášiková, mother of three children, has been director of the NGO Association for a Better Life from its inception. She studied nursing, and became engaged as a mission and social worker. She focuses on education of “terrain workers” in a programme to support housing projects for marginalized Roma communities.
Július Pecha, father of four children, is an acclaimed Roma leader who has been involved as a terrain social worker and is currently a coordinator at the NGO Association for a Better Life. He studied as a professional soldier and latterly has been pursuing university studies in social work.
What is the impact of Coronavirus on the Roma settlements in Kecerovsko-olšavský region in Eastern Slovakia?
Our prime minister Igor Matovič placed 5 settlements on lockdown and guard them with the assistance of the army, because there´s 31 people infected by corona virus. Only few of our settlements are not integral parts of the villages and it is thus unrealistic to close only isolated settlements and not the villages as a whole. It seems rather discriminatory to me and it might lead to further treatment of Romanis as secondary citizens, not belonging to the society.
Of course, the measures have to be tough, but this have more layers and consequently reveal our attitude towards Roma settlements.
However, in many settlements there is no drinking water. Not even utility water, which negatively affects hygienic standards and is directly connected to the risk of contagion. I cannot even imagine such scenario of Corona virus spreading in any of these localities, I am quite scared even of the possibility actually.
Spreading of the virus in these settlements would have terrible consequences, all of us working in this sector are aware of that – whether in government, NGOs or state institutions. Therefore we started to focus on education in the settlements.
There are two sides – for one it is not right to close down Roma settlement just because of few people when everybody else follows all the precautions. But whenever we have a suspicion that not even a basic level of precautions can be sustained we have to close down whole settlements I think. If there is a single person infected and moving freely around the area, a lot of other people will be infected as well and then it will be safer to quarantine the settlement. On the other hand, in Bratislava there´s more infected people by corona virus. Why do they not lock down Bratislava?
What do you think about testing for corona virus in Roma settlements in the presence of the army and the police?
Testing is a good idea, but Roma people should not be the only group that should be tested. Firstly, all the inhabitants of Slovakia should be tested without distinguishing between groups of people. We shouldn’t be going back to situations during the Second World War where people were discriminatingly divided into Roma people, Jews, etc. Secondly, testing is needed where Roma people of two or three generations live together in houses at Roma settlements and the risk of infection is high.
Testing in the village of Kecerovce was very calm and peaceful. One day before testing we had a meeting with the Mayor, health worker, soldiers and policemen. Everyone agreed that there was no need for guns.
Have there been guns at other Roma settlements?
I don´t know whether there have been soldiers with guns at other Roma settlements. I think it depends on agreements between the mayor, police and soldiers. I also really don´t think that there is need for the army or police to be there. They should be present at such situations as floods or some natural disasters.
Only the Roma who came from abroad have been tested. Naturally, they were also afraid and didn´t want to infect their relatives, so they did it voluntarily. Thus I´m really concerned about the fact that the media present how many Roma people have been infected by corona virus. And, why do they have to mention the ethnicity? We are also Slovaks, we are not asylum seekers. This is dangerous, because then that’s just a step to forbidding Roma people to go to public places, such as to shops.
Do Romanis follow the measures against spreading of the virus?
For example when they go to bank or to the post office they always wear face masks, so they act responsibly. They don’t visit each other so frequently, with the exceptions of close families – kids and siblings see each other as they used to. My sources informed me, that they share face masks. We are trying to explain why they should stop doing this, because there are risks and everybody must have his or her own face mask.
Are Roma settlements adequately supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE)?
The state did not provide us with anything. That’s a fact. Even medical personnel lacks PPE in Slovakia, so regular folks are struggling with these shortages much more. Communities, self-governments, NGOs, schools and community centers are trying to sew face masks on their own. At ROMANI SUV we make them as well. We used to create bags and now we are making face masks, distributing them across the region, because the demand is huge. In our association there are three Roma women, plus one American, who lives here as well. They sew about 100 face masks on a daily basis.
Part of the output we distribute among people without money, but in critical need of the face masks – sick or elderly people. Some of the masks we sell for 1 €. In Slovakia you can buy masks for 3 € and more, but since we work with donated material, we can keep our price low. From the profits we are able to pay our seamstresses.
We get contacted by mayors from neighbouring villages and communities, that they would like to buy face masks. We sell our products to them and they distribute the masks free of charge among their inhabitants. Many mayors searched their conscience and decided, that they want to secure a face mask for every single person in the community. Either they isolated the needed sum from the municipal budgets or they sponsored the cause with their own finances. These are the finer moments.
Our civic association assists with masks distribution in the region. The mayor of Boliarov, where I live, ordered some 600 masks. Ideally everybody will have one washable and reusable face mask. However, there is an issue with the lack of disinfection, even our office does not have enough.
We have also witnessed situations, when Romanis working in big factories in Košice or on building sites have to wear face masks while on job duty. However, their employers fail to secure their PPE and so these workers have to buy a mask from us.
Is it true that when social support is paid out at post offices the police and the army are present? This is what the media say but how it actually goes down?
It took three days without any incidents. People were disciplined, stood in queues, followed the recommended spacing. There were two police cars present, two policemen stood by the door, there was no army. Everything went smoothly and peacefully, the Romanis were calm and polite, everybody had their face masks on, and the policemen were very decent.
In many localities, the police is still present during this process. For example where extortioners operate or where people from various conflicting localities concentrate, because there is a risk of hassles. I would not see it as a problem, but the media coverage, connecting Romanis and armed units (they have to be there because of the Romanis) is unfortunate.
How exactly were your activities and your job affected by the corona virus?
My job was affected in all possible ways. I am not able to counsel larger groups of people. Romanis can be influenced by hoaxes and some of them are really counterproductive. We deal with our clients continuously, but they cannot come to our office in regular hours, when we would have time to talk, intervene and share information… We have to keep direct contact to a necessary minimum. We are trying to tend to people with major problems, but in general I have much less direct contact with my clients. That bothers me.
The other thing is that in our region we are not dealing only with the Corona virus, but with tuberculosis as well. Out of 11 kids transferred last week there was a positive diagnosis in three cases. In Kecerovce there is a case of a girl aged 18 months, who died because of tuberculosis. Kids ranging from 0 to 5 years of age had to be transported to DolnýSmokovec. It was very unpleasant taking these little children to the ambulance, I had the urge to take them out immediately. However, the regional health office warned us that there is a risk of spreading the disease among 10 to 50 kids and in order to protect others we had to take precautions. Currently there are 8 kids back home with the health confirmation, so they will not spread TBC any further. Other families and the rest of the settlement can rest easy, because these precautions eliminated all the possible issues and brawls. The affected families have in writing that their kids are healthy and those, who are now sick, will come back home after they are cured.
The problem with TBC vaccination is not being mandatory and therefore the disease started to spread in Roma settlements. These little kids are not vaccinated and once they have contracted the illness and not being cured properly, the course is fast.
We are battling against two tough viruses so let’s hope the improvement comes soon enough. We are scared of one another. The other downside is once the virus massively spreads, we will protect the settlements only with great difficulties.
We were developing a project for mothers’ meetings in the communities. We had to put it on hold since it is a group work and people are not supposed to be meeting right now. The most important thing is to minimize social contact, wear face masks, wash their hands etc.
We were also working on the project of our training center. The roof needs to be fixed so we were waiting for a warmer weather. We will carry on with it while abiding by strict quarantine precautions – there won’t be many people working on the site and they will keep safe distance.
As for the community work, I am trying to do as much as I can trough telephone. Romanis are equipped with telephones these days, we do not have to go to from house to house. My colleagues Julo Pecha and Ferko Turták are integral parts of the communities, visiting the households daily, explaining everything there needs to be explained. Our social workers are the heroes now (together with medical personnel and clerks,) being out there despite the risk.
How does the unemployment manifest in your region?
From the economic perspective we do not feel any worsening of the situation. However, that might and probably will change in two months, since the firms and factories will not have any jobs and will have to reduce their personnel. Our project DOMOV, where people save certain amounts from their regular salaries in order to buy a piece of land thus might be in danger. We tried to provide Roma people with jobs, we wanted them to be active and it was a good time to do so. Now we wonder how it will turn out. The participants saved money for six months or a year, and if they stop just because of lower income, it would be such a shame.
In Roma settlements guys work on building sites and they are going to lose this income – that is a problem. In spring and summer time they rely on the money, some of them already lost the income. And I have to sort out with them how to pay 10 €monthly installment for a cable TV. Currently this is a necessary service since kids are home all the time.
They are late with payments for electricity already. A catastrophic scenario awaits us in the near future – guys will not work, there will not be enough food, the price for basic food will grow as well as the number of petty thefts and burglaries.
In the past years we have witnessed a steady growth of Roma employment rate. They work in car factories or elsewhere as production operators. What I find interesting is the fact that they get the jobs despite their ethnic origin. I would say, that each factory employs 30 to 50% of Roma workers.
Five years ago we had 1,5% employment rate in Volierov; now 30% of the local guys have regular jobs. Especially young Romanis enter the job market quickly; unfortunately, when big companies close their factories, they lose the job. And they work for minimum net wage 500 €;if the salary is reduced to 60%, they will receive 300 €. This will be a difficult situation for families with 3 or 4 kids.
On the other hand, in Roma settlements people can live on a bare minimum, they are able to share, they help each other during crisis and the families stand together. This is their great advantage.