Society’s vulnerable groups are the ones who are hit the hardest by disasters and measures taken to counter them. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, as it has countless times before, that the Roma community in Albania is the most vulnerable and most affected.
In the first week of March 2020, Albania enforced restrictive measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of this virus has put a stop to any normal life activity. As in any natural disaster occurrence, strict restrictive measures were taken immediately. These measures, unfortunately, were most felt by vulnerable groups such as the Roma community, Egyptians, and families who lost their homes in the earthquake of January 28, 2020.
The Roma community is located mostly in central and southern Albania. Housing, education and occupational segregation pose serious obstacles for this community’s integration. On the other hand, a small part of the Roma community is well educated, employed and contributes to society.
Roma have taken one hit after another in terms of epidemiological crises, because they have insufficient access to clean drinking water and sewage, poor infrastructure and limited access to the health care system, insufficient food, poor awareness of preventive measures as well as overcrowding in settlements.
When it comes to this community, implementing preventive measures is difficult, not because of lack of care, but because of the living conditions. On average, 4 to 7 people live in a Roma apartment, while in the houses this number goes up to 8 or 9 people per house. Basically, these are extended households consisted of two or more generations under the same roof. Living in an extended household does not necessarily imply a COVID-19 infection, but it can prove to be fertile ground for the spread of the virus. It can be concluded that hygiene and distancing are impossible, because when a family member has to go shopping or to a pharmacy, in case he/she becomes infected with the virus, he/she is already a potential transmitter of the virus to other members of his/her (large) family. In this case, poor hygiene is the strongest ally of the virus. It is worth mentioning that in the Roma settlements, in the peripheral parts of the cities, distancing is not practiced. They gather in groups and meet regularly.
Discontinuing work activities caused immediate consequences. This community lives from hand to mouth. Most often, Roma work with the resale of second-hand (used) goods, as well as street trade, which is often not permitted by the state. Daily earnings meet basic survival needs, leaving no funds that might be used in the event of an accident or disaster. From the very first days after the preventive measures were established, this community began to worry about not having any money, wondering how they will survive day in, day out. The closing down of the Roma markets in Elbasan, Durres, Tirana and other cities, as well as shutting down activities related to the purchase and sale of second-hand goods, forced people to take on debt in neighborhood shops, i.e. do the shopping now, and pay later. Day by day the debts in the local shops are growing, which makes it insufferably difficult for them. There isn’t enough Albanian leks to buy food, let alone buy masks and gloves.
In the case of the pandemic, the Municipality of Elbasan distributed aid to this community, and the community responded in protest, stating that the aid was not enough. Rapisht in Elbasan is home to the poorest part of the Roma community in the city. They started a protest demanding more help from the state, mainly food that they need most, given their current conditions.
At their protest, they demanded immediate food aid to feed their children, explaining that they have no place to keep soaps and disinfectants, nor do they have water for hand-washing, and they cannot feed their children with them.
Another measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was to shut down educational institutions at all levels (pre-schools, primary and secondary schools and universities). The Ministry of Education has instructed primary and secondary school teachers to share knowledge through Google communication tools, and the students were instructed to use the same platform to send their homework. It was the duty of every parent to register their child to attend online classes. Unfortunately, for a Roma family with two or three children, first of all it is impossible to have an internet connection and the time to listen to the lessons from the teachers and to register their child to listen to each subject. Five or six subjects mean five or six listening assignments for each child. Teachers teach via Google Classroom (group communication platform) and students send homework on the same platform.
Online learning is another challenge for this community. As stated above, the community faces severe socioeconomic challenges that do not allow them to attend classes in this way. As a former teacher-in-training in the elementary school "Fadil Gurmani" in Elbasan, an institution where a high percentage of Roma students are enrolled, I can say that the process of online learning for these children is impossible. From my personal experience and the experience of my colleagues, I can say that the socio-economic conditions in which these children live make it impossible for them to attend lessons. This educational process offers knowledge that can only be obtained during the lectures. Their economic conditions do not allow every family to have an internet connection. For some of them, the Internet is a luxury, as is owning a smartphone.
What can be done differently?
Society’s vulnerable groups are the ones who are hit the hardest by disasters and measures taken to counter them. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, as it has countless times before, that the Roma community in Albania is the most vulnerable and most affected. In this case, it is clear that the state is not able to help each family financially in the event of a disaster, however the situation can be better managed. In order to avoid a situation in which these people will protest for food, first every citizen of this community should be registered in the civil registry office, so that the unemployed can be registered at the Employment Office and can be on the list for possible employment and exact information can be collected in terms of how many people live in one home. The need for supplying drinking water remains to be the most important, as well as registration in the health care system, thus the soap and disinfectants that were provided as aid were insufficient, when basic means of subsistence are lacking.
Collecting data on the settlements inhabited by the Roma community, as well as creating a platform to supply them with drinking water is something that is expected from local and central authorities.
It would be a good idea to set up a special fund to provide internet connection and computers for Roma families who have children in school, although this may seem like a luxury when these families lack basic living conditions. As in other communities, the Roma need to work on education and their integration into society in order not to remain isolated in their used goods markets and in particular educational institutions, while distancing themselves from the rest of society. It is important to learn which socio-economic policies do not function in this community and the projects specifically designed for the community should not just be projects on paper or effective for only one part of this community. Instead, the policies should be comprehensive and they should delineate where future efforts should be directed.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.