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Targeted COVID-19 testing in Roma settlements in Slovakia – A positive measure or further stigmatization?

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By Meera Thoompail, Intern at Minority Rights Group International. (Photo: Zabíjanec Roma settlement in Rudňany. Credit: Jana Cavojska.)

Slovakia began targeted testing of Roma settlements for COVID-19 in early April. Some rights groups have challenged the measures as fuelling further stigmatisation and prejudice against Roma, whereas the Government justifies the measures to be necessary as members of the Roma community were returning from abroad. Many from the Roma community generally view the testing as necessary in light of the global health crisis. However, quarantine measures following the testing have been documented as being dangerous and risking further spread of the virus in Roma settlements.

The lead up to targeted testing

Roma in Slovakia make up to 11 per cent of the population. The community are dispersed throughout the country, with half of the Roma population living in destitute conditions, oftentimes residing in crowded settlements as they face widespread systemic discrimination from the rest of society. Life in such settlements makes it difficult to observe social distancing measures. The right to water and sanitation is severely lacking as many Roma living in settlements do not have access to running water in their homes or safe sewage disposal systems.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, around 1,500 members of the Slovakian Roma community returned back to Slovakia from abroad, as did many non-Roma Slovakian nationals. Returnees from abroad are required to quarantine for 14 days in state-appointed facilities. A Roma settlement in eastern Slovakia near Gelnica was quarantined as a member of the community who had returned from the UK did not keep to the obligatory quarantine.

This sparked the decision to enact targeted testing for Roma communities living in crowded settlements, as there were concerns that the probability of the virus spreading more rapidly in these settlements is increased owing to inadequate sanitation and hygiene conditions. The decision is reported by one journalist working in Roma settlements to have been made with the advice of medical experts and leaders in the Roma community. Peter Pollák, a Slovak Roma MEP and part of the Crisis Team to address COVID-19 in Roma communities, has stated that “this was not a political decision”.

Threatening the use of force

Testing initially began in 33 settlements, with assistance from the army and police. The justification behind the use of the security forces was primarily due to the limited number of medical staff who would be able to travel to the settlements and commit to the testing process. Prime Minister Igor Matovič denies that the targeted testing was a demonstration of power, and instead insists that it was to prevent overloading the regular health system and is necessary to protect all lives. Similar targeted testing campaigns have been used for residents of care home facilities situated in cities and towns where there is easier access for medical staff to do the testing themselves.

Testing in a Roma settlement in eastern Slovakia. (Source: TASR)

Although it may seem discriminatory that medical professionals were used to test members of care homes but not Roma communities, one journalist sees this to be a practical measure as it was not possible to mobilise a large number of medical staff to facilitate testing in the densely populated Roma settlements. Instead, such capacity was only found to be possible with involvement of the army. However, the early days of targeted testing in Roma settlements did see officials from the security forces carrying guns and using helicopters, which caused fear amongst the Roma due to past experience of police misconduct against members of the community.

The Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Romani Communities Andrea Bučková has stated that the testing has been carried out in a sensitive and professional manner, and stressed that the army would not cordon off the settlements from the rest of society during the testing procedures. Testing has indeed been reported as being carried out in a respectful manner, with no complaints having been made against the security forces. Some members of the Roma community have viewed the testing as a positive measure, and necessary given the severity of COVID-19. Subsequent quarantine is also viewed as necessary. However, concern is raised over arrangements made for quarantine in Roma settlements.

Questionable quarantines and misconduct

Five settlements in eastern Slovakia were quarantined without separating the people who had tested positive from the rest of the community. To make matters worse, not everyone in the settlements were tested, with priority only given to returnees from abroad and their families. There was no system allowing for enough medical staff to visit the quarantined settlements. The state did not ensure adequate food and medical supplies, nor were safe sanitation levels provided for. Residents also contend that they were not informed on the duration and conditions of the quarantine.

Vilcurna Roma settlement in Spišská Nová Ves. Running water has not been available for years, with only one water pump in the entire settlement (Credit: Jana Cavojska)

Under the Healthy Communities Programme, members of the Roma community are trained and employed by the Ministry of Health to be Health Mediators for their respective communities. The presence of Roma Health Mediators is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic as they are able to actively engage with the local community on education and awareness of hygiene and the risks of the virus. Despite this importance, it has been reported that the Health Meditators have not been provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) by the state, and instead there has been a reliance on NGOs to provide them with PPE.

Misconduct from the security forces in quarantine zones have also emerged. Reports circulated of a police officer beating five young Roma children in a settlement that was under quarantine in Krompachy. The children had gone to collect wood in a location that the army had previously allowed them to visit. The incident was apparently witnessed by a soldier who did not intervene.

The last settlement to be lifted out of quarantine was in Žehra, after 37 days. The decision to take infected people out of the settlement in Žehra and quarantine them separately, alongside testing every member of the settlement was only taken in mid-May, with those who were infected and their loved ones being moved to a temporary quarantine centre composed of containers. Pollák was quoted as saying it is “important that everybody be tested and that everyone with a positive test goes into quarantine”. Pollák also gave guarantees that the temporary quarantine center would have the necessary facilities for a comfortable stay, including the availability of nurses and paramedics onsite.

Conclusion

Although the targeted testing of Roma settlements has been seen as a positive step in tackling COVID-19 in Slovakia, the quarantine measures highlight the entrenched neglect by the state of the poor socioeconomic conditions of Roma communities. Ensuring that Roma have the necessary means to practice safe hygiene by providing for the basic rights to water and sanitation during a public health crisis and securing the availability of medical professionals to attend to the community is vital to curb the spread of the virus.

More in Slovak by Jana Cavojska, journalist from “Media, Minorities and Migration” Project: here and here.

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