Can Europe Make It?

The shameful resurgence of violent scapegoating in a time of crisis

Racist scapegoating of outsiders in times of epidemic is a strategy with an ancient pedigree.

Margareta Matache
Margareta Matache Jennifer Leaning Jacqueline Bhabha
5 May 2020
Police intensify control in a neighbourhood of Girona, Spain, where many Roma people dwell, April 2020.
SOPA Images/PA. All right reserved.

Though a global pandemic poses a risk to everyone, the most marginalized among us are subjected to additional challenges. Members of Europe’s Roma population have long been identified as “outsiders” – labelled as inferior, criminals, threatening, and potentially contaminated carriers of disease. Countering the rising wave of anti-Roma hatred, hate speech, and violence associated with responses to the pandemic is an urgent European priority. Failure to attend to it will exacerbate the risk of atrocities and hate crimes against the Roma.

Few politicians have met the leadership challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some, many of them women, have relied on scientific experts to guide early lockdown and aggressive testing policies, and to achieve impressively low morbidity rates; Germany, New Zealand, and the south Indian state of Kerala, are examples. Others, a majority, have been slow and hesitant in following expert advice, wasting precious time and thus contributing to dramatic surges in rates of infection and mortality among their populations. Yet others have politically exploited the widespread insecurity and fear generated by a novel and as yet incurable virus by turning on stigmatized “Others” to foment hatred. A particularly egregious example of the latter approach is the response of Ukranian mayor Marcínkív who ordered the forced transfer of the Roma from his city of Ivano Frannkvisk to the border with Zakarpattia and hurled racial slurs at the Romani people, who resisted coercive banishment.

Racist scapegoating of outsiders in times of epidemic is a strategy with an ancient pedigree. From the fourteenth century Black Death to the many subsequent outbreaks of plague around the world, including outbreaks of syphilis, leprosy, HIV/AIDs and subsequent viral epidemics, sudden outbreaks of deadly diseases have been associated with the search for a scapegoat. In pagan times, witches and evil spirits were blamed. In the medieval period, European Christians expanded the attribution of contamination and blame to heretics, Muslims and Jews. Large-scale killings of Jews were prevalent during the years of the Black Death and to a lesser extent in later outbreaks of plague in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, with increasing population movement and the building of cities, many epidemics of cholera and typhus were attributed to the filth of new and suspect populations. As recently as the early 1900s, the Chinese were blamed for an outbreak of plague in San Francisco.

The historical international record is mostly silent about whether Roma were specifically targeted for persecution in the context of epidemics. During the 500-year period of Roma slavery in Romania, enslaved nomadic Romani people were seen as carriers of the plague and were forbidden from entering Romania’s largest city, Bucharest, during outbreaks. And during the Holocaust, Romani and Jewish people, seen as “human parasites,” were singled out as carriers of typhus. Romanian fears that Roma were the source of typhus and potential contaminators of the “Romanian race” led to deportations of Roma populations to Transnistria.

The historical record eloquently testifies to the persistence of killings and massive raids on Roma settlements mandated by brutal authorities throughout their time as an identified group in Europe, for almost a thousand years. Over the centuries, the persecution of Roma, as an oppressed minority, portrayed as almost non-human, became a learned behavior. The killing of Roma – ordered by princes or feudal lords – was executed by wide swathes of the non-Roma population. Great violence against the Roma became a communalized mode of releasing anger about economic or social problems afflicting the larger community. This legacy persists, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. COVID-19 is the latest social and economic crisis to ignite communally sanctioned attacks on Roma individuals and communities.

Great violence against the Roma became a communalized mode of releasing anger about economic or social problems afflicting the larger community.

Mayor Marcínkív’s racist outburst is mirrored elsewhere across Europe. In the past two months, from Ukraine to Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Serbia, state representatives, police, journalists, and public figures have propagated inflammatory rhetoric, labelling Roma as sources of coronavirus contamination. Bulgaria has instituted discriminatory roadblocks and police checkpoints to target Roma individuals; in Romania, some local stores are allegedly prohibiting the entry of Roma. They all exploit a false narrative to disseminate irrational fear: Roma are transmitters of the virus.

Human rights activists have documented numerous pandemic related, anti-Roma incidents. One in particular has attracted extensive media attention. Clashes between two rival families in Codlea and cases of police abuse in Hunedoara, Bucharest, and Giurgiu on April 18-19, the Orthodox Easter weekend, were sloppily researched and subsequently sensationalized by Romanian TV stations. Broadcasters and commentators have invoked racist tropes about “Gypsy violence” to transmute local dispute and police violence stories and turn them into a full-blown safety and public health emergency. The predictable result has been an outpouring over Romanian social media of hate-filled calls for anti-Roma violence, in some cases laced with approving references to Roma extermination during the Holocaust.

Broadcasters and commentators have invoked racist tropes about “Gypsy violence” to transmute local dispute and police violence stories and turn them into a full-blown safety and public health emergency.

Violent police attacks on Roma communities have been lauded, before being investigated, by public figures, including by the Director of the Ministry of the Interior, who announced that the police would be “intransigent with the thugs.” By contrast, a few NGOs, journalists and newspapers have investigated and shed light on police violence and targeted, explicitly racist, attacks that threaten Roma safety and well-being. As the COVID-19 public discussion in Romania morphs into a series of anti-Roma diatribes, there is among much of the Romanian Roma community a terrifying sense that the clock is ticking and that repeated past incidents of anti-Roma collective violence (house burning, violent attacks) are going to escalate.

A global pandemic demands carefully targeted local responses. Testing, tracing, and supported isolation where needed are key strategies. But in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, public leaders also have a solemn and urgent obligation to address escalating anti-Roma hate speech and violence by calling out vicious scapegoating for what it is. Such state-sanctioned vitriol constitutes a vile threat to public health and a flagrant violation of human rights that obscures pressing public needs and incites extremely grave risks of future harm.

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