It is evident that COVID-19 is radically changing the way we go about our everyday lives and the things we normally take for granted, whether it is community events, festivals, family celebrations and even attending funerals to show our respects. Through my voluntary trustee work with Romano Lav (Roma Voice), a small NGO based in Govanhill, it is apparent that COVID-19 is having a serious impact on the lives and livelihoods of the various Roma communities who stay in the neighbourhood.
Since at least March 2020, it has been evident that patterns of everyday life in the area have changed in quite remarkable ways. For example, in April, it was reported in the local press that images had been shared online of Roma families supposedly gathering for a backyard BBQ that were deemed to be breaking social distancing rules. Likewise, an earlier incident in March led one national newspaper to suggest that Roma youths had been deliberately coughing on passing pedestrians and spreading the virus in a deliberate and reckless manner.
Such allegations, hearsay and rumours were without foundation, when analysed properly, but by the time of publication the damage had already been done. Indeed, the racialisation of COVID-19 has now been witnessed and discussed across Europe, with regard to Roma and other minorities, and this has had an impact not just on public health measures but also on the policing of “at risk” communities.
In Govanhill, we are witnessing various responses to COVID-19 the longer the situation continues, with its associated lockdowns and tier strategies to try and manage and contain the spread of the virus. Sadly, deaths within the local Romanian Roma community have occurred, as with other communities across the rest of Scotland, and families have responded to such fatalities in a host of different ways – some have (temporarily) packed-up and returned to central and Eastern Europe, others have chosen to stay in Glasgow and ask geographically distant relatives to join them in Glasgow in protective ‘bubbles’ for help, support and assistance.
The impact of COVID-19 amongst Roma communities in Govanhill is being felt in ways that risk lives, as well as deepening already existing social and economic inequalities. Via Romano Lav, we are witnessing specific risks and vulnerabilities to extended families that require immediate and preventative action. As an NGO, we have identified immediate and longer-term concerns to the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council.
For example, housing provision across Govanhill, Holycross and other Southside areas remains persistently unacceptable with enduring issues of overcrowding, high rents, poor conditions and exploitative landlords. With large families living together in small privately-rented flats, and without access to suitable garden areas, shielding and social distancing has been physically problematic. Evictions of Roma families from local accommodation since March 2020 have continued to be reported to Romano Lav, even at times when this was not supposed to have been legally actionable due to moratoriums. It has also been noted that ‘mortgage holidays’ for landlords have not translated into ‘rental holidays’ for tenants.
In terms of public health, we have seen how inadequate housing and lack of income has fed into health inequalities and disadvantage being deepened due to COVID-19. Roma people are often vulnerable to being placed in ‘high risk’ health categories due to conditions such as diabetes, anxiety and respiratory issues. COVID-19 adds to the health worries of many families. Similarly, inequalities in education, as well as language and literacy barriers, have proved challenging when delivering key public health messages and tackling isolation and mental health issues. Translation services are scant and largely absent and in the absence of reliable information rumours can take hold (an early one was that COVID-19 spread through household water supplies, so many families spent limited funds on bottled water).
With regards to education, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the progress made in recent years in terms of Roma pupil attendance and their attainment levels at local schools. It is here that evidence of digital exclusion has been most evident, with real challenges in terms of online delivery of classes when schools are not open. Lack of access in homes to reliable hardware and affordable broadband connections is a factor, as well as the associated closure of community hubs with such ICT provision. However, one successful initiative was witnessed in September 2020, whereby a grant to provide tablets and WiFi provision to school-age Roma children to support their educational needs was secured. This project was a great success.
An under-reported factor during recent months has been the extent to which many members of the Roma Communities in Govanhill have been employed as key workers during the pandemic, often without adequate PPE. This lack of public recognition was telling. Despite this, levels of poverty have been severe and early incidents of stockpiling of items, for example, did impact hard on communities who were trying to buy scarce essential supplies from local shops. Unfortunately, many Roma workers have not been assisted at all via the furlough scheme, due to their precarious and casualised employment status. Financial insecurity has been rife, not helped by welfare conditionality and social security restrictions.
Worryingly, we know via the work of Romano Lav that incidents of structural and institutional racism have also been increasing as a result of COVID-19, as well as racist incidents in the Southside and also city centre streets. The aforementioned media coverage has not helped matters in this regard and evidence of hate speech, physical attacks and discrimination have been reported to Romano Lav staff and volunteers over the last few months. In much of this, the shadow of Brexit has loomed large, as much as COVID-19. Inaccurate and inflammatory newspaper reporting has led to racialised scapegoating and has illustrated that the early claims of the virus ‘not discriminating’ to be untrue. As mentioned, COVID-19 related deaths in the Romanian Roma community have sadly occurred and this has caused fear and panic about symptoms and self-isolating, as well as incidents of families effectively evacuating Glasgow in order to return to the safety of home in Romania.
Taken together, the evidence of the last few months seems to indicate that the Roma communities in Glasgow are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. The virus has served to bring to the surface the existence of racialised faultlines in how services, cultural provision and public policy measures are implemented unevenly in crisis situations. This should concern us all, especially at a time when we are beginning to imagine a post-virus future where cultural events, festivals and community celebrations might start up again. However, the serious social policy issues that COVID-19 has rendered visible will take many months and years to change as these come in addition to already existing social and economic inequalities.