The most segregated parts of a community contain one of the most vulnerable people, especially during a pandemic. In Hungary, no one can doubt the serious consequences the failure of mass vaccination of the Roma population would cause. It is of great importance that the Roma also register in large numbers and then get to the vaccination points – or that the vaccination points reach them. The National Roma Municipalities in cooperation with non-governmental organizations, now aim to convince the Romani community that vaccination indeed saves lives and encourage the vaccination of Hungary’s largest minority group in the framework of a large-scale media campaign.
A shocking article was published on Reuters a few weeks ago, which demonstrated the situation of the Roma community in Hungary affected by the pandemic. In the article, Aladár Horváth, a Roma civil rights activist, described the situation as people were “falling like flies.” Another activist, Zsanett Bitó-Balogh, likened the outbreak to an explosion; she said she had 12 family members in hospital at the same time, lost two uncles and her grandmother in the previous month, and her neighbor’s parents, cousin, and uncle also died of Covid within a few weeks.
According to Horváth, in more closed communities where more people live together and the number of personal encounters are higher, the virus will obviously spread faster there. There is no money or income in the “poor ghettos” to buy medicine and vitamins, much less have access to adequate sanitation. There are places where water is brought from 200 meters away and many people drink from one jar. In this way, everyone catches the virus in a matter of seconds, according to Horváth. Although masks and hand sanitizers are only available in a limited number, many people don’t realize the importance of basic hygienic practices and refuse to comply with the rules. Moreover, there is also a general lack of computers, sometimes even electricity, within these communities, so many are unable to register for vaccinations.
According to Reuters, despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horváth describes as a humanitarian crisis.
In response to the situation of the Roma communities, Gergely Gulyás, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff, said that he does not think that Romas are illiterate and therefore can register for the vaccine, and believes that the government has done a lot for their development. Gulyás also said that mobile phones that have internet are also available for the Romas, however, people can also register via post, and local governments and GPs can also help. Moreover, since the average age of Hungarian Romas is lower, there may be fewer people vaccinated so far.
István Forgács, a Roma expert who is also of Roma origin, argues that when it comes to the mass vaccination of Romas, the communities are not united on the issue. Although there are no visual, large-scale rejections, unfortunately, the kind of widespread motivated will to do so is not yet visible, which if implemented, may prove that hundreds of thousands of Romas want to register and then get vaccinated in the coming weeks.
Forgács also contends that in order to achieve mass vaccinations, convincing Romas to register and then helping them get inoculated are of utmost importance. The first thing to do he says, is to have Romas voluntarily register for vaccinations. If this is attained, GPs, specialist clinics, or vaccination buses that act as mobile vaccination points will solve the rest of the task.
And this certainly requires external influence, a form of external assistance at the county and local levels as well. Roma community leaders have a great responsibility, which is why it is gratifying that many of them have realized the importance of this and dare to speak to the Roma. However, there will also be a need for Roma artists, athletes, well-known and recognized Roma speakers, who can help build widespread confidence in vaccination and registration.
In a statement, the National Roma Municipality declared that together with other Roma municipalities and in cooperation with non-governmental organizations, they will work to provide logistical, personal, and technical conditions for people living in the 300 most disadvantaged settlements of the country, mostly of Roma origin, in order to promote registration for vaccination against Covid-19. The aim of the initiative is to deliver vaccinations and highlight the importance of registration in disadvantaged settlements where a large part of the population does not have access to the Internet and other technical conditions for registration.
The #VaccinateToLive campaign’s primary aim is to provide key information on coronavirus control and specific registration assistance to the most disadvantaged.
Volunteers and activists who take part in the registration campaign also participated in trainings regarding compliance with health and safety regulations organized by the Civil College Foundation. In recent weeks, health professionals have also trained volunteers to be able to provide adequate information in settlements to people who are afraid of the possible side effects of vaccination, and therefore do not plan to vaccinate themselves. Activists also point out that vaccination is not mandatory for anyone, however, if someone wants to take advantage of the opportunity, they can do so immediately via the help of volunteers. As many people in the affected areas do not have internet access, an e-mail address, or even a telephone number to register, activists will walk the streets of designated settlements with tablets with internet access.
At the same time, Roma media outlets and civil rights groups launched a joint national media campaign to encourage registration and dispel misconceptions about vaccination. The campaign aims to persuade people using short films, reports, statements, video posts, and films about individual experiences, explaining where and in which towns activists will be available. They also give information about the contact details of these activists, should anyone need help from any point in the country.
As part of the media campaign (mainly on social media), articles and short videos are published in which well-known public figures and performers talk about their own experiences with the virus and why they consider it important to receive the vaccine. Margit Bangó, a Kossuth Prize-winning songwriter, performer Guszti Bódi and her son, Csabi Bódi, and singers Mariann Falusi and Györgyi Lang, who have already received the first dose of the vaccine, were the first to join the civil action. Among the members of the younger generation, Lajos Sárközi Jr., (Junior Prima award-winning violinist), Gergő Oláh, (the winner of the X-factor), and rap singer G.w.M (with a million-strong fan base), all talk about the fact that they have already registered for the vaccination. József Oláh, (the band leader of Parno Graszt), and singer Csabi Bódi talk about how severe the disease was when they caught it, as well as their experiences in regard to recovery. They encourage everyone who cares about their family, friends, and their own health to register and vaccinate themselves.
Back in January, the University of Pécs’s Public Health Institute published a survey in which the data showed that at the very beginning of the national coronavirus vaccine campaign, only nine percent of the Hungarian Roma community wanted to be vaccinated. Fruzsina Balogh, a member of the Rendszerszint‘s Roma community affairs, said that due to the boosted vaccination campaign, according to her own personal experience, the ratio has increased to about 50-50 percent. Balogh also stressed that there was a wealth of misinformation circulating among residents of settlements – in places where people do not even have stable electricity or running water – where people were skeptical about both the epidemic and vaccination and hence did not take it seriously.
The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on the vulnerabilities of segregated communities, in particular the Romani minority group within Hungary. On the occasion of the International Day of the Roma on April 8th, members of the European Commission also acknowledged that the majority of Roma to this day still face prejudice, anti-Gypsyism, and socio-economic exclusion, and their situation has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic. In order to make changes in the socio-economic situation of the Romas, the Commission adopted a new ten-year framework strategy last October, in which access to education, employment, health services, and housing would be tackled.
Featured photo by János Vajda/MTI