May 4, 2020 / 4:02 PM / 25 days ago

Hungary's Roma facing economic disaster as COVID restrictions lifted

MISKOLC, Hungary (Reuters) - Robert Filep eyes his prepaid electricity meter anxiously: he has 28.9 kilowatt-hours left. When that runs out, whatever food remains in his fridge will start to rot.

FILE PHOTO: A Roma man brings water from a public well at a slum during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Miskolc, Hungary April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The father of four lost his construction job last week as the coronavirus pandemic continued to batter businesses.

Like many Hungarian Roma, Filep was employed on a day-to-day basis and such workers are often the first to get laid off. They are also usually ineligible for state benefits because they have been employed in the black economy.

“I have zero reserves,” Filep, 41, told Reuters in his home, a rickety shack in a slum outside the industrial city of Miskolc in eastern Hungary. “I get no social or unemployment benefit, or any kind of support. I have absolutely no income.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government has approved a package of measures to alleviate the economic impact of a weeks-long lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

But the measures mainly target businesses and do not address the immediate needs of vulnerable groups such as the Roma who also now face increased health risks, activists said.

Hungary has so far reported 3,051 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 351 deaths, a relatively modest number due mainly to an early and strict lockdown and to relatively sparse testing.

There are no separate infection statistics for the Roma, but till now the cities have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Hungary. As the government began lifting the lockdown on Monday, aid workers said they fear the virus could now spread more easily to rural areas where many of Hungary’s Roma live.

“BRUTAL” THREAT

“When the virus comes to the slums it will be brutal,” said Krisztina Jasz, a field worker in southern Hungary and a member of the European Anti-Poverty Network.

“People are chronically ill, either malnourished or overweight, many with pre-existing respiratory conditions.”

Of Hungary’s 10 million people, close to a million are below the poverty line, including some 300,000 in Roma ghettos. They often have limited access to healthcare and, living cheek-by-jowl, are poorly placed to practise social distancing.

Economic woes and the pandemic make for an explosive mix, Jasz and others say.

“First they borrow, while they can,” Jasz said. “Then thefts and burglaries will rise. And if the pandemic hits a place like Miskolc, solidarity will give way and the Roma will quickly become a police problem.”

The government did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on its plans for the Roma. A spokesman has previously said government policies are designed for all Hungarians.

The leader of a government task force that coordinates donations and volunteers for needy citizens said it was right to put the focus on preserving and creating jobs.

“Work instead of aid has been a good strategy,” Mariusz Revesz, a lawmaker in Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, told Reuters.

Orban has promised to replace all jobs destroyed by the pandemic but that rings hollow with activists such as Gabor Varadi, who organises food drives to Filep’s slum and elsewhere.

“They help businessmen, but that hardly helps this community... The government should help with aid packages that ensure the daily survival of these people,” Varadi said.

Analysts said Orban had been stepping up his anti-Roma rhetoric and had little to lose politically from ignoring the plight of a minority that has long faced prejudice and discrimination in Hungary and elsewhere in eastern Europe.

Slideshow (13 Images)

“The government will only do anything if it feels threatened politically,” said Peter Kreko, an analyst at Political Capital.

“The Roma’s situation has deteriorated gradually in the past few years and their votes have routinely been bought... When it’s important they will be given tins of food and bread as they have been before.”

Fidesz could even benefit from any social strife involving the Roma by being able to demonstrate its strong law-and-order credentials, Kreko said, adding: “I don’t really see this right-wing politics changing anytime soon.”

Writing by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones

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