'Where Is This Going To Lead?': Roma People In Europe Face Coronavirus Disaster : Coronavirus Updates Many in Europe's largest ethnic minority group live in poor, marginalized communities where conditions could lead to a swift outbreak, say researchers and activists.

'Where Is This Going To Lead?': Roma People In Europe Face Coronavirus Disaster

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global wave of scapegoating. In Europe, a target has been the Roma, the continent's largest ethnic minority and its most marginalized. Many Roma are impoverished and lack proper housing, running water and sanitation. And that makes them especially vulnerable to infection and to discrimination. Here's Joanna Kakissis.

(CROSSTALK)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Roma neighborhood in Nadejda in central Bulgaria sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KRASIMIR KIRILOV: Kids playing. Someone crying. Music. Someone celebrating. So it's full of life, basically

KAKISSIS: That's Krasimir Kirilov, a Roma activist in the city of Sliven. He lives near the neighborhood home to more than 25,000 Roma. They work in construction and as farm laborers in Western Europe. This is the city where a 7-foot wall was built to segregate the Roma from other residents. Roma families are crammed into huts and lack basic services.

KIRILOV: Clean water. Sewage is not working. People have low access to health care.

KAKISSIS: So they're vulnerable to COVID-19. Last month, Bulgarian police sealed off Roma neighborhoods, but not to protect them. A leading politician claims Roma neighborhoods are, quote, "the real nests of disease." Roma youth activist Mihael Mishev calls this textbook racism.

MIHAEL MISHEV: They call us gypsies, which is a bad word. Most of the people call us thieves - we're lazy and dirty.

KAKISSIS: Nukhet Varlik, a history professor at Rutgers University, says pandemics usually amplify existing prejudices. In the 14th century, Jews were blamed for the Black Death.

NUKHET VARLIK: We see these behaviors - the scapegoating, the blame, fear and hatred - those kinds of behaviors most typically when the cause of the disease was not known, when it seemed mysterious to people. So it was considered more of a threat.

KAKISSIS: Some Roma are so afraid of being blamed for COVID-19 that they won't go to the hospital when they're sick, says Brisilda Taco, a Roma advocate in Albania.

BRISILDA TACO: People which are sick, they are very discriminated from the society.

KAKISSIS: Twelve million Roma live in Europe. So far, they haven't seen huge outbreaks. But the lockdowns mean they can't work. Roma researcher Ciprian Nodis tells me on Skype about a scrap metal collector living on the landfill in northern Romania.

CIPRIAN NODIS: He lost his job. He's struggling to put food on the table of his children. He told me, look; we are here. We are living in the garbage. And the rest of the society treat us like garbage.

KAKISSIS: We will either die of hunger, he said, or disease.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

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