Roma Standing Conference and Partners’ Position: Changing policy and public statements regarding Roma community in a crisis is an indispensable prerequisite for protecting public health
During the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 virus, the Roma Standing Conference and our partners are monitoring the actions and rhetoric of the Bulgarian authorities and local media towards the Roma community.
We recognize the need to take special measures to inform and assist people living in Roma neighborhoods in the country, but we have serious reservations about how this is communicated. We are concerned that lack of responsibility on the part of public and political leaders creates stigma against the Roma community and is in violation of key World Health Organization recommendations. The WHO disallows policy to be implemented based on ethnicity.
The restrictive measures taken by national and local authorities in Bulgaria are oftentimes accompanied by hurtful and in some cases overtly racist positions and statements by some politicians, commentators and public figures, thereby dividing and demonizing the Roma community.
We have observed and are concerned that some media in our country are repeating rhetoric that, in combination with already existing anti-Roma attitudes and opinion, are being spread on social media.
For example, in many locations, authorities have placed checkpoints at the exits of Roma neighborhoods, under a special quarantine regime. Some Bulgarian officials and media have defined these checkpoints as a “blockade”.
We warn that the use of terms such as “blockade” will increase tensions both within and outside Roma communities. Furthermore, we believe such terms lead to further stigmatization of Roma communities.
Additionally, we are highly concerned about rumors and rhetoric which enforces the false belief that Roma alone are responsible for transmitting the virus from Southern Europe to Bulgaria, creating unnecessary and harmful division between communities. We foresee Roma being unjustly labeled as carriers of the virus and perceived as a danger to the rest of society.
The combination of ethnically restrictive measures and stigmatizing Roma rhetoric work against the state’s calls for solidarity and unity.
In this extraordinary situation, we stand for equality as a fundamental human right. We must all be equally responsible for protecting both life and health as well as fundamental human rights. Therefore, we are demanding a change in policy around public statements regarding members of the Roma community during this crisis as a prerequisite for protecting public health.
Over the past week, more than 250 health mediators have been working in the Roma neighborhoods, carefully explaining the government’s state of emergency measures against the spread of the virus to members of the Roma community.
In addition, more than 35 civic organizations and initiative groups that are part of the Roma Standing Conference also have been active in Roma neighborhoods, communicating the measures against the virus using accessible language.
Community Action Groups in the 46 municipalities participating in the ROMACT program are also on-site, disseminating information against the spread of the virus and measures issued by the government.
We continue to work with the Roma community on the ground and are open to partnering with local and national authorities.
In the interest of the national unity, the Roma Standing Conference and partners are calling for:
- National and local authorities not to encourage and create tension with information on restrictions to and from Roma neighborhoods. We are offering full support at any place and willingness to assist in solving problems and protecting public order and health;
- The Bulgarian authorities and individual politicians, commentators, journalists, analysts and media to put an end to the stereotyping and stigmatizing rhetoric against the Roma community, which unnecessarily and irresponsibly incites hatred and ethnically colors the pandemic.
- National and local authorities to maintain partnerships with local Roma leaders, initiative groups and activists at both the national and local level to plan effective measures and information regarding emergency measures in the name of protecting public health throughout Bulgaria.
We remain open to cooperation and wiling to assist in order to protect the public health of all Bulgarian citizens.
Roma Standing Conference
National Coalition Intellect
National Network of Health Mediators