When the pandemic hit Romania, it was clear that socio-economic impacts were going to be felt rapidly and deeply. And there were immediate concerns that the pandemic would affect Roma differently - and disproportionately. One year into the pandemic, we know that these concerns were justified.
Data from real-time monitoring of the crisis at household and community level show that all Romanians have been adversely impacted by the crisis. The data also tell us that Romanians who were already experiencing challenges in their living conditions and work life before the crisis were affected more strongly and more deeply. Among those, Roma stand out as the population group for which the crisis did not only exacerbate existing gaps, but also added new ones.
Existing disadvantages translated into new challenges during the pandemic. 68 percent of Roma households live in overcrowded conditions and lack access to running water, which made it hard to comply with hygienic and social distancing measures. World Bank data show that food security remains a concern for the poorest households in Romania since the outbreak of the pandemic. Employment data shows that low-skilled and informal workers, out of which many are Roma, were more likely to lose income.
Government’s rapid response measures were effective in reducing negative impacts among formal workers – but initially left informal workers less protected. Marginalized rural communities were also more severely impacted by health service disruptions. 1 in 3 poor households missed a regularly scheduled appointment for consultation, treatment or monitoring. This is particularly worrisome as Romania has the third highest rate of deaths from treatable diseases in the EU. Many Roma students struggled with school closures because they did not have access to laptops or computers, or a stable internet connection to engage in distance learning.
We expect that this will significantly increase the already alarming gap in functional literacy in Romania: before COVID-19, 41 percent of 15-year-old students were functionally illiterate and 1.5 years in schooling behind the EU average. World Bank projections show that the share of functionally illiterate students may increase by up to 10 percentage points as a result of school closures. In addition to these losses of income and access to basic services, Roma have experienced increased levels of stigmatization, scapegoating and discrimination in connection with the pandemic.
As Romania enters economic recovery, the Roma experience must be taken into account in the design of new public policies. First and foremost, this is important because economic recovery can only be sustained if Romania can capitalize on the drive and talents of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic background. Roma are a young and a growing population group, and they can play a critical role in the country’s long-term growth. Equally important, challenges of the Roma community during the pandemic provide a clear lens through which the most critical gaps in Romania’s spatial, social and economic development can be seen in sharp relief. Closing these gaps will make Romania’s economy stronger and Romanian society at large more resilient to future shocks.
Romania’s recovery requires comprehensive investments in closing infrastructure and services gaps that are specific - but not limited - to the Roma population. This means going further than mainstreaming, i.e. integrating the Roma inclusion into government strategies and investment programs. Moving the needle on Roma inclusion will require specific targeted investments in communities that are driven by clearly defined outcomes and measurable result indicators. The National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), coupled with the programming of the EU’s 2021-2027 Social and Investment Funds (ESIF) provide an unprecedented opportunity to make this a reality. There are five priority areas that require particular attention:
- Invest in basic infrastructure and integrated social services that reach the most vulnerable population groups.
- Improve coverage and adequacy of safety nets.
- Ensure that all children, including the most vulnerable, have access to modern education, focusing on basic (primary education) and digital skills (primary and secondary), and paying attention to the specific needs of Roma girls to ensure they do not drop out of education early.
- Improve access to primary health care in particular in the most marginalized communities.
- Strengthen Active Labor Market Policies (ALMPs) for inactive population groups and informal workers, with a focus on women and youth.
True prosperity in the modern world requires that the entire society contributes to economic growth and enjoys its fruits. Romania can achieve such prosperity building on the lessons of the crisis. In addition to the measures listed above, there is also a need to acknowledge and address harder to quantify challenges such as discrimination and racism. Engaging with all Romanians on this agenda in a proactive and constructive manner will be necessary to improve social cohesion and enable equality of opportunity for Roma in all areas of their lives. Local communities can play an active role in this process. They are best placed in naming their needs, proposing solutions and identifying priorities for budget allocations. Establishing mechanisms that bring in the voices and insights from local communities will be critical for identifying solutions that work. If the whole society works together, Romania can truly become a prosperous country where all citizens are valued and included.
Originally published in Romanian language on Digi24.ro