Social Distancing With Tear Gas and Walls: the “Racist, Hateful, And Life-Threatening Campaign” Unleashed Against The Romani With Covid-19

Romani children at the toxic Pata-Rât landfill encampment, August 1996. Photo: David Dare Parker.

She was 37 years old. Her name was not reported. We will never know the name of her baby. For three days after her waters broke, she appealed multiple times for attention at Ohrid General Hospital in North Macedonia. Every visit ended the same way, with her being denied treatment. Her friend, who drove her there, said she was bleeding, in obvious pain, and had signs of an infection. The pregnant woman was from a nearby Romani settlement where she survived in suffocating poverty. According to her friend, she had no means to pay for check-ups during her pregnancy, and that all she was offered at the hospital was racial invectives when what she’d pleaded for was a caesarean. Eventually, one doctor intervened when he realized her condition had deteriorated beyond what the hospital would be able to treat, and he arranged for her to be transported to the University Clinic of Gynecology and Obstetrics (UCGO) in Skopje.

Upon arrival at UCGO, the ambulance driver did not take her to the emergency room, but instead left her curbside. She was Romani. A gypsy. Should she have expected anything else? The hospital would not admit her until she’d been tested for COVID-19. She waited outside for over six hours. By the time she was admitted her baby was dead. She spent the last two hours of her life in surgery. By 10 pm on March 31 she’d left a widower and two young children. The cause of death should have been recorded as systemic and institutionalized racism, but instead was entered as sepsis. The Ministry of Health later confirmed that her COVID-19 test had returned negative. This Romani woman and her baby are symbolic of what is being inflicted upon Romani tribespeople in Europe during the coronavirus pandemic, where the ideological twins of toxicity – populists and nationalists – are trooping down the age old path of fomenting xenophobia against a persecuted ethnic minority by fabricating their culpability in the crisis.

“There is evidence of discrimination against Romani women in maternity care in Europe. Interventions to address discrimination against childbearing Romani women and underlying health provider prejudice are urgently needed,” concluded a revealing study in Reproductive Health when most people didn’t know if Wuhan was a place in Asia or a bad ’80s band.

Voice of America recently reported, “As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across Europe, Roma, traditionally crammed in decrepit homes and settlements with poor sewage, are largely being viewed as ticking time bombs.” Ticking time bombs. We went from the multi-century tropes of beggars, thieves, baby snatchers, dirty gyppos and pikies to “ticking time bombs” in less time than it might take Doc Trump to stick a UV light in a limited choice of orifices or mainline some Lysol, you know, “by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” In the midst of a global pandemic, “ticking time bombs” is high on the dehumanization scale. Instead of victim-shaming the 37-year-old Roma woman who endured days of agony, the Macedonian press can now use a variation on the theme of ticking time bombs and shift from spurious reports of her being “unable to walk” due to “morbid obesity,” to her and her baby being, say, some racist analogy for “a bomb so made as to explode at a predetermined time.” Thank you, Webster’s. Now what kind of bomb might that be?

“Local and national newspapers have waged a racist, hateful, and life-threatening campaign of anti-Roma propaganda,” warned the Health and Human Rights Journal in April, after reviewing COVID-19 related media coverage across Europe. The pandemic, it summarized, has become “a license to unleash racism against stigmatized groups” with “the discriminatory treatment of Europe’s Roma minority a brutal case in point.”

Voice of America stated that it was the Romani, the people themselves, who were COVID-19 ticking time bombs, as opposed to the appalling conditions the Romani have been condemned to live in that leaves them more vulnerable to the pandemic, which is an important distinction. Voice of America didn’t start this pejorative-for-any-occasion to vilify the Romani, it began before the Spanish Inquisition, but for this latest incarnation, the mechanistic approach to further stigmatize the Romani, look inside the European “basket of deplorables” aligned with Trump where you’ll find Orbán, Zemen, Kollár, Marinov, Salvini, Le Pen and Borissov. After recently elected Slovakian prime minister, Igor Matovič, dispatched the army to lockdown Romani settlements at the beginning of April, “ticking time bombs” became synonymous with the Romani and the spread of COVID-19 in Europe, the talking point beginning as an easy sell for Matovič’s cabinet, members of the Slovak parliament, and doctors towing the government line. But not so much for Amnesty International, which informed Matovič’s administration that, “without providing Roma with the necessary means to protect themselves, including ensuring access to water and sanitation” the militarized response would “only add to the stigmatization and prejudice” the Romani face.

“It is by no means a demonstration of power,” claimed Matovič, in contradiction to Amnesty’s findings after the Slovakian military forcibly quarantined five Romani settlements in one day. “The presence of armed military personnel around the perimeter of settlements appears intimidatory and raises questions about adequacy for the purposes of law enforcement and protection of public health. In particular, the fact that they carry weapons.” Matovič’s “targeted testing” recorded 31 positive cases of COVID-19 out of nearly 7,000 residents. According to Amnesty, “the Roma were not informed about the duration and the conditions of their confinement. The authorities reportedly did not separate those who had positive tests for COVID-19 from the rest of the community. Moreover, according to available evidence, the authorities did not put in place adequate provisions of food and medical supplies.”

“We still have some 30,000 people with no access to water,” confirmed Peter Pollák, Slovakia’s first Romani Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a lonely voice in Matovič’s OLaNO (Ordinary People) Party. Community members informed Amnesty’s researchers that under the “compulsory quarantine” it wasn’t just water they were deprived of, but medication “for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart-diseases and asthma,” all of which elevate the lethality of COVID-19. “They also reported instances when an ambulance initially refused to come and assist residents who needed health care.”

Matovič ran as a populist, but the extent of his Trumpian tendencies are yet to be determined within his recently formed governing conservative coalition. The same cannot be said of Boris Kollár, leader of the We Are Family Party, who in Matovič’s government is now Speaker of the National Council of the Slovak Republic. Kollár claims his far-right party is rooted in “traditional” conservative family values, the tenets of which were on full display when he took the stage at a nationalist-fest in Milan last May alongside Matteo Salvini, Marine LePen, Geert Wilders, Jorg Meuthen, Heinz-Christian Strache and Bulgaria’s wannabe Donald Trump, Veselin Mareshki. When asked how he would address the perpetual humanitarian crisis of the Romani in Slovakia, Kollár suggested purchasing 700,000 plane tickets to relocate them in the UK. He later claimed he was joking, as you do, because ethnic cleansing always elicits a good laugh. Ironically, their Romani-Traveler kinfolk in the UK are faring little better. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who in Obama-speak is deplorable enough politically, has introduced the Police Powers and Protections Bill which, to all intents and purposes, criminalizes the Romani traveling lifeway.

Kollár is simpatico with another who fits Trump’s categorization of “very fine people,” the seventeen newly elected members of the National Council of the Slovak Republic from the Kotlebovci-People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS). Party leader, Marian Kotleba, built his political career on hate speech and inciting violence against the Romani, whom he decried as “Gypsy parasites.” When Mayor of Banská Bystrica, Kotleba empowered his party faithful to organize into regimented squads to intimidate and coerce the Romani community. By statute, he used alleged “Gypsy criminality” to justify instituting a manual labor program that compelled the Romani to repair roads. In 2020, his campaign slogan for L’SNS was “Slovakia First.” Sound familiar?

For his stint in parliament, Kotleba has switched to a suit from the fascist Hlinka Guard inspired uniforms he and his followers used to don, but the L’SNS emblem still features the double cross of the Slovak Republic circa 1939 to 1945 when the state was allied with the Nazis. Kotleba uses Facebook and YouTube to incite with conspiracy theories, a kind of Balkan Alex Jones in jackboots, with one constant – that “Gypsies” and “immigrants” are responsible for infecting Slovaks with coronavirus.

Baro Porrajmos, the “great devouring,” is how the Romani term the Holocaust. In Slovakia, the Hlinka Guard shock troops were enthusiastic participants. The Nazi’s co-opted one of our ancient symbols of peace and good fortune, bastardized it on angle, and murdered 500,000 of our relatives beneath it. Some estimate that in excess of a million Romani-Sinti were victims of the Holocaust. In one night alone, on August 2, 1944, over 4,000 Romani men, women and children were gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau when the “Gypsy camp” was “closed.” If you can’t imagine the historical trauma of the Romani currently being held in confinement by the Slovak military, you’ve been in the MAGA-sphere too long.

Slovakia isn’t the exception, it’s closer to the rule. Romania and Bulgaria have also employed paramilitary force to confine Romani populations in circumstances Amnesty International has categorized as “arbitrary and disproportionate” which “amount to a violation of human rights.” Bulgaria hasn’t just followed “Build that wall,” it’s built several, all around Romani settlements and citing COVID-19 as justification. “These ghettos,” began Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, “could turn out to be the real nests of contagion.” Dzhambazki is second in command of the VMRO, a nationalist party in Bulgaria’s governing coalition. Trumpophile, Veselin Mareshki, is Vice Chair of the National Assembly of Bulgaria. What’s happening to the 50,000 people behind the walls who are among the 80% of Romani across Europe who live below the poverty line, the 30% who have no running water, and the 46% with no access to basic sanitation, may be difficult to gauge. Under Prime Minister Borissov, who Trump feted at the White House in November 2019, press freedoms are almost non-existent. Former US Ambassador to Bulgaria, James Pardew, identified Borissov as one of the leaders Trump models in his “rants” against the press “to stifle truth and government accountability” which has been on full display during every episode of the White House coronavirus reality show.

“Instead of seeking additional ways to protect these particularly vulnerable members of our societies as coronavirus spreads, some politicians have actively fueled anti-Gypsyism,” said Frantisek Kopriva, MP, Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Kopriva has been largely ignored. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who Trump whisperer Steve Bannon called “Trump before Trump” has continued his anti-Romani discrimination by excluding the tribespeople from the country’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, and blamed George Soros for inciting discontent among the Romani. “Trump before Trump” is being as good as his word. “We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others,” he said in 2018. In Erdogan’s Turkey, 48 NGO’s signed a statement denouncing policies that have omitted Romani communities from hygiene services and that now “can’t access the most basic rights” due to the pronouncement that “Roma carry the virus anyway.”

The dire reality for the Romani is that the shredding of their human rights is not exclusively the domain of fascists, nationalists and authoritarians. In Spain, the Civil Guard was first deployed to a Romani-Gitano community at the beginning of March, a move supported in the national press, where the Romani were described as “unstructured clans unused to public order and discipline.” We gave you the essential elements for Flamenco, historically you gave us slavery, and today the socio-economic deprivation that has resulted in the lowest life-expectancy in Europe and rampant levels of COPD and diabetes. As COVID-19 hit Spain, the Fundación Secretariado Gitano warned, “We are talking about 47,000 people who currently lack the food and basic products for subsistence, with the aggravating circumstance that there are many minors in poverty situations (the child poverty rate in the gypsy community is 89%), and to which the aid, neither food nor monetary, promised by the Government is reaching.”

The “segregated purpose-built ghettos” in Spain resemble some in the Balkans. In France, they look the same. Existence on the outer regions of human rights isn’t differentiated by borders. President Macron has been criticized by the European Roma Rights Center for “callous indifference for the security” of the marginalized community. To little or no avail, aid agencies have warned of “a potential health disaster” in Romani “slums” like Saint-Denis and Perpignan when COVID-19 hits. “They live crammed into small shacks, so they can’t confine themselves and isolate people who could infect them,” said Adeline Grippon, an aid worker of Médecins du Monde. “They lack the basics like access to water, to toilets, in many of the shanty towns,” she continued, in what is a continent-wide refrain. Perpignan saw the first Romani coronavirus fatalities in France. The Romain have been in that region since the 14th century, and two-years ago mounted protests to halt the demolition of their homes in the town’s Saint Jacques historic district, the poorest neighborhood in the country. Others, drawn from the Balkans by the allure of making up to $70 per week recycling scrap metal, have grown accustomed to their homes being razed. Their search for a better life usually ends with riot police destroying their camps.

A certain irony shadows the fact that France has one of the most intolerant policies toward the Romani. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue is arguably the most significant ceremonial pilgrimage site for not only Europe’s 12-million or so Romani, but the clans worldwide. It was Romani from the Camargue who made alliances with Lakota, Cheyenne and Pawnee leaders in 1905 when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World show toured France. Cody, not one to disappoint his host, the Marquis de Baroncelli, who held the same opinion, “discovered striking resemblances in color, type, customs and vocabulary” between the indigenous peoples separated by an ocean. Iron Tail, whose face is known to most while his name and identity remain adrift in mainstream American historical oblivion, was among those who participated the cultural exchange.

For all the similarities in philosophy born of Earth and sun and star blown sky in the duality of feminine and masculine articulated in ceremony, dance and song, were Iron Tail present now in the grip of this global pandemic, he would surely note other correlations between the peoples: how many experience segregation, existing within government-designed ghettos in overcrowded dwellings that bear no resemblance to their traditional homes. That those within the walls struggle with higher rates of diabetes, TB, hepatitis, obesity and chronic respiratory diseases than those beyond them. And that multigenerational poverty can’t adequately be described if it has never been lived. There’s a reason why COVID-19 infection rates in Native and Romani communities could reach levels predicted to be seven times higher than regional averages.

As for social distancing, Iron Tail would recognize that until now that wasn’t a measure to control the spread of a virus, it was a day-to-day consequence of structural inequality and discrimination that has consigned Native Americans to society’s “other” and the Romani to be among the most invisible of the “other.” If we weren’t invisible, these places wouldn’t be buried in obscurity: Pata-Rât, Stolipinovo, Lunik IX, Ferentari, Fakuleta and Shuto Orizari where the mother whose child died in her womb waiting on a COVID-19 test, had relatives. These aren’t even squalid shantytowns, they are hell holes most would concede were unfit for human habitation, but they are hell holes tens of thousands of Romani are forced to call home.

Pata-Rât near Cluj Napoca, a Romanian city known for its baroque architecture, is a 44-acre landfill. In and around the unstable trash mountain approximately 2,000 Romani shelter in meager huts made of refuse. There’s no water and no sanitation in a dump. Many lived in viable communities in the city before they were evicted and under police escort taken to this toxic wasteland. To sustain themselves, families rummage through the trash heaps for anything that can be recycled, choked by the stench of Sulphur and fumes from rotting and burning garbage. Leachate is everywhere. Between packs of feral dogs and swine, children are so caked in grime that the handful of visiting charity workers can’t see the extent of their skin diseases. “You’re very talented, you love the people,” Trump told Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at their last meeting. Evidently, not all of the people. “The gendarmes scared the children, even some adults as well. They sprayed tear gas and shouted at us to stay in the house. We all felt like criminals,” wrote Maria Stoica from Pata-Rât. That was April 26.

“They can’t eat because there’s no work due to the pandemic,” Ciprian Valentin Nodis, a Romani academic, said of the Pata-Rât exiles. “Where is this going to lead?” he asked.

Yes. Where is this going to lead?


Rain is the director of the trending documentary Somebody’s Daughter which focuses on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis. One review describes the film as “among the most important documentaries made on not only MMIW, but also on Indian Country in the twenty-first century.” His previous film, Not In Our Name, had the distinction of being entered into the Congressional record at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in May 2019. Rain is a member of the Strange Owl family from Birney and Lame Deer, Montana. He is also Romani and is often listed among “notable Romani people.” His forthcoming book, Psycho/Pathogen, will be available in July.