Covid-19: A wave of racism against the Roma communities in Romania

By Maria Dumitru

Roma lying on the ground with their hands handcuffed and beaten[…] “Stay the hell out at home! F*uk your mo*th”, said the policeman hatefully while he violently beat a Roma man […]

Throughout the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed several waves of racism, especially toward minorities and racialized communities who were already subject to discrimination. Groups such as Asians, Dalits and Roma have been scapegoated and accused of spreading the virus.

The quote above was featured in the introduction to an online newspaper article after the outrageous case in Bolintin-Vale, Romania, where a Roma man was brutally beaten by a police officer who also employed racist slurs. The incident erupted due to a livestreamed video of a Roma man who did not comply with the pandemic rules, as did many Romanians. This video of police violence was posted on social media but did not evoke much empathy or solidarity from non-Roma people. On the contrary, the police officers were praised for their “bravery” while it was claimed that “they were only doing their job.” Further racist and discriminatory comments were also added to the video such as: These guys need to be beaten, it’s the only thing they understand.”

In Romania, this particular incidence of police brutality is not an exception to the rule. In the past, the Romanian police have been denounced for violence and brutality committed against Roma. As regarding the Covid-19 virus, only during the first months of the pandemic, Margareta Matache, director at the Roma Program at Harvard FXB and human rights advocate, recorded six cases of police brutality, where 20 Romani persons, including three children were victims. To understand the landscape of Roma as a scapegoated or stereotyped ethnic group in times of the pandemic, it is imperative to look back into Romanian history.

Roma communities were enslaved for 500 years and suffered ethnic cleansing in today’s Romania. According to Delia Grigore, the enslavement of Roma implied “a trade of selling and buying people” and thus, Romani people were considered “moving objects” and not human beings. Viorel Achim further writes that the robi (‘slaves’) were often, “exposed to inhumane practices that could lead to their death.”After slavery was finally abolished in 1856, the Roma did not receive any compensation or programmes of emancipation.  Less than a hundred years later, more than 26, 000 Roma were eradicated in the Transnistra concentration camp 1940-1944. Neither this time, the Romani survivors from the genocide received any compensation The pattern of blaming Roma as spreading viruses is not a modern invention. According to Viorel Achim, nomadic Roma during the enslavement period, were often prohibited of entering certain cities as they were suspected of spreading viruses or being carriers of plagues. Moreover, during periods of epidemics, they were forced out of the cities for months.

These past events and the racist narratives used to justify them are still affecting the daily reality of Roma: When it comes to the acknowledgment of the historical injustices and reparations of Roma, Romania still displays the symptoms of national amnesia, as evinced in the continuous, unjust treatment that Roma receive on a regular basis. More specifically, in Romania, 70% of Roma communities live in poverty and a third of Roma live in households which experience hunger. These structural inequalities, which is also a result of the history of slavery and genocide, make Roma subject to institutional discrimination, as a result of which Roma are dehumanized and face “anti-Roma racism deeply rooted in different levels of society.” It is therefore no wonder that their status as “second-class citizens” leads to the Roma experiencing injustices in terms of fundamental human rights. In fact, during Covid-19, many of these rights have been under increased threat. Margareta Matache argues in Anti-Roma Racism Is Spiraling during COVID-19 Pandemic, (2020) that the pandemic aggravated pre-existing issues regarding poverty, lack of access to basic services, the rate of school dropout for Roma children and gender-based violence. In summary, the pandemic served to reinforce the status of Roma as the “Other,” and thus exacerbated racism.

As to how this situation came about, the media was a major actor in transmitting a plethora of misinformation that deliberately portrayed the Romaas ‘criminals’. When the Romanian Roma families  working abroad, were forced to return home, they were ‘welcomed’  in Romania with statements in the media such as, “Now that you all have nothing to steal abroad, you return to our country,” or  “Three hundred Roma from a village in Suceava returned from Italy for fear of coronavirus and lied at the borders that they came from Germany.” Following such statements, a wave of hate reappeared, and Roma communities were once again targeted. Roma communities were collectively confined and scapegoated as those who are infecting the ‘Romanians (Although Roma are legally Romanian citizens, they are not recognized as such socially and are therefore referred to as outsiders or even foreigners who do not qualify as Romanians). Additionally, institutions and political figures, such as the former President Traian Basescu, encouraged anti-Roma rhetoric. Even academic scholars spread anti-Roma sentiments by sharing racist imagines of Roma as carriers of the virus.

It must be mentioned that these racist campaigns reverted to the usual, ‘traditional’ stereotypes dating from the fifteenth century that portray Roma as ‘criminals’, ‘dirty’ and therefore able to transmit diseases. Although these stereotypes have been dismantled, even in today’s Europe, the stereotype of Roma as ‘dirty criminals’ prevails and is used to justify violence against Roma. In conclusion, violence against Roma during the pandemic is thus not about a single instance but is a deeply rooted historical pattern dating back to the Romani enslavement. Now that we have reached the momentum for recovery from Covid-19 world-wide, the anti-Roma racism must be addressed for what it is, historically rooted, and that Covid-19 only exacerbate already-existing racism and structural inequalities dating back to the slavery and holocaust. Only through this we can work towards the goal of leaving no-one behind.

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