Jan Horvát: Czech and Slovak Govts must immediately combat COVID-19 in excluded localities
The COVID-19 pandemic involves the entire world - unfortunately including us, the citizens of the Czech Republic, as the number of infected persons here is growing daily. What has gone wrong?
Maybe the borders should have been closed immediately, or the Government should have banned those on vacation from returning if they had potentially been infected abroad. In the worst-case scenario, this was an error committed by irresponsible individuals.
Be that as it may, the virus is here, and we must combat it now, but unfortunately we lack the weapons to do so. There is no drug against it, there is no protective gear, disinfectants are even lacking on the market.
Unfortunately, the demand for such products exists worldwide and the problem is a global one. It is clear to see the world was not prepared for this, since in a standard situation there is nowhere near the demand for those products as there has been in recent days.
It is admirable how our people have coped with the lack of face masks. The people did not wait, not for aid from the state or anybody else, and our handy Czech seamstresses sat down at their sewing machines and are producing functional face masks of all shapes, with more than one layer, and some are even paying attention to aesthetics and fashion sense; some are distributing face masks free of charge, for which they deserve our great thanks.
We are hoping that the situation will change and that everything will become accessible again. Until then, let's be prudent and at least wear what we have.
We are in a crisis regime, and as is well-known, any crisis has the biggest impact on the weakest link in the social chain. Yes, by that I mean the excluded localities and settlements where Romani people live.
For the time being, there is no information about the virus spreading to a greater extent in the socially excluded localities. Let's be happy, because I actually am greatly afraid of what will happen once the virus breaks out there.
One of the problems there is a lack of water, and for that reason it is more difficult to maintain one's personal hygiene there. It is necessary to familiarize the inhabitants of those localities with the seriousness of the situation, to give them both information and a helping hand.
Measures for excluded localities
From my perspective, it is important to prevent the infection reaching those localities. The only way to do that is to limit the inhabitants of the excluded localities and settlements from contacting the outside world and to restrict access by outsiders to those localities, at least until the biggest wave of infection passes.
However, it is not appropriate for the state itself not to be involved. On the contrary, the state must oversee everything, deliver supplies to the inhabitants and arrange for the monitoring of their contacts.
It would be just as inappropriate for the Romani people themselves not to adhere to the emergency measures. It is the only way to protect them from ending up like Italy, if not even worse.
I don't want to spread panic, but measures need to be implemented immediately. I am calling on our Government and on the Government of the Slovak Republic not to let things go too far and to begin taking action now.
Here we have the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs, the Agency for Social Inclusion, and all the other more significant pro-Romani organizations. Once again, where are they all now?
None of them are presenting anything about what they are doing, none of them are publishing any information - where is their activity? Only David Beňák, director of the Agency, has said in a statement for Romea.cz that he is following the situation and that the Agency and the ministries are exchanging information.
At least somebody is providing information about the fact that they are monitoring the situation. Otherwise it seems as if everybody has fled and nobody is interested, nobody is taking care of anything.
I am interested in what is happening with the Romani people, whether they are all right and have what they need, just as thousands of people here are interested. I comprehend that both organizations and individuals are concerned that if they draw attention, people will develop opinions about them attempting to score political points, but at this moment those concerns are inappropriate.
Social media, after all, is full of reports about the activities of individuals and groups, and nobody here in the Czech Republic sees anything wrong with that. In Slovakia they are already monitoring access to the settlements and excluded localities.
Field workers there are doing outreach, and the Romani MPs in Slovakia are also in the field aiding that effort. I believe that many of us are disturbed by this and that we are providing aid, but I am concerned that unfortunately our efforts are not very visible and that they are not enough.
The nonprofit organizations have said they have to stop their activity because they don't have enough protective gear, which naturally I comprehend. There is such a lack, but just like the entire country has done - to say nothing of Europe - we solved this in my area by contacting a couple of seamstresses, providing them material, and we are sewing face masks and delivering them free of charge.
The Czech and Slovak Governments must begin to take action
If I can visit people and deliver them face masks, then others could too, after brief preparations, but it would be appropriate for the Health Ministry, or Interior Ministry, to promote the supply of protective gear since they already have it available - at least for social workers in the field. Logic dictates that if there will be no protective gear, then nobody will go into the field, and if nobody goes there, we will never acquire information about what is required for those in need.
At this moment people in social exclusion are certainly running out of money, groceries, face masks and disinfectants. Naturally somebody might object that they're running of out that stuff just like the rest of us are, but they couldn't buy them even if they wanted to, without money they won't be able to buy what they need because the labor market is at a standstill.
Most of those in social exclusion who can work on building sites as auxiliary labor, and with the announcement of quarantine, their jobs were closed. They are cut off from their incomes, and this could have a negative impact on crime rates, because if they have nothing to eat, they will take to the streets irrespective of the ban and do their best to find some aid.
If they don't find it, then criminal activity committed with the aim of securing the basic necessities for living could increase. It is, therefore, important to maintain at least minimal contact with those in social exclusion through social workers in the field, to collaborate with the food banks more than at any other time, to redistribute groceries to the needy, and to convince the Government that it is necessary to invest in these problems.
In this situation, such action is not about positive discrimination of some kind, but about providing humanitarian aid during a crisis. We lack our own functioning Romani political party or other political platform to ask for this to happen, though.
During these heavy times, somebody should be fighting for us, bringing us together, organizing and directing our efforts where they are needed in collaboration with the majority society. Actually we do not have anybody at all to whom we can turn with our proposals, our requests for aid, our requests for the protection and rescue of our lives.
What if everything gets out of control here? If that happens, we Roma will be the last people whom anybody will want to aid.
I can imagine a scenario in which the pandemic becomes extreme here and doctors will have to decide whose lives to save, just as happened in China and is currently underway in Italy - will the physicians decide to save the life of an uneducated, poor Romani person from an excluded locality? Will the emergency responders come when people from the excluded localities call them?
Would we even ask ombudsman Stanislav Křeček for aid, would he assist us? This is difficult because all our political attempts here have failed so far.
We Roma ourselves are irresponsible, we don't turn out to vote, we either don't like the leaders or all our attempts end up with individuals failing. It's necessary to create a political platform to correct this in the future, because one day a problem could arrive that we will be unable to cope with without political support.
For the time being, however, I remain optimistic. If we are all responsible, then I believe we will cope with this situation.
Let's not forget the work of all the paramedics, the physicians, the police officers, the Army is involved and many volunteers are also. Let's thank them all for their alacrity and bravery and wish each other the best of luck.
Jan Horvát is a member of the Romani community in the Czech Republic.
Opinions published in the COMMENTARY section do not necessarily express the opinions or perspectives of the editors of news server Romea.cz, Romano voďi magazine, or ROMEA, o.p.s.
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