COVID-19 and its Impact on the Roma Community: The Case of Spain

On the days after the 6th March, at the very start of the epidemic in Spain, the press reported one of the first large foci of COVID-19 in Haro in the north and also the deployment of the militarised Civil Guard[i] to the town. It was stated that these ‘exceptional measures’ were necessary because of ‘concern that the isolated people would not respect the obligatory quarantine.’[ii] Despite legal restrictions around mentions of ethnic identity in the press, it was soon revealed that the supposed miscreants were Spanish Roma (Gitanos) who had attended the same funeral. The notion that ‘the Gitanos’ had brought COVID-19 to Haro and indeed the province, and that they were spreading it out of their determined disregard for the wellbeing of others, soon gained traction on social media.

Less than a week later, the Spanish press buzzed with reports that huge numbers of Spaniards were resisting the dictate to quarantine,[iii] crowding country parks and clogging beaches, and of course similar accounts have subsequently emerged worldwide, from California to London. As in the case of Haro, we are told that citizens’ refusal to act responsibly obliges reluctant governments to enforce ever stricter measures of social control. At a time when the meaning and the practice of citizenship is being redefined in such extraordinary ways—the good citizen is the one that stays at home and keeps at least 1.5m apart from others—an excess of selfish individualism is described as the epitome of un-citizenly misbehaviour.

By contrast, it is the assumed inability of Gitanos as a group to behave as citizens that is often elaborated, particularly in the right-wing press. So when the national broadsheet ABC reported that Gitano Evangelicals gathered to pray in the streets of one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Seville, it also characterised them as belonging to ‘unstructured clans unused to public order and discipline,’ and described their songs as ‘healing chants.’[iv] These are not postmodern individualists acting selfishly by strolling in parks or escaping to the countryside: they are instead described as a primitive collective behaving in mindless unison. This assumed extraordinary shared behaviour is said to demand exceptional responses. In Haro, both Civil Guard and police were deployed to watch the homes of the quarantined families; in Seville a prominent city councillor demanded the urgent deployment of the army.

In fact, the idea that Roma are collectively already outside the bounds of civilised humanity is well-entrenched in the European imagination. As the academic literature on topics as diverse as health, housing or media representations evidences, discourses of Roma as threatening, disorderly outsiders are widespread and available.[v] Sadly, the redeployment of well-worn ethnic stereotypes in this utterly novel context will not be the only effect of the pandemic on the Gitano community. Already one of the most marginalised and poorest minorities in Europe, with worst health and lowest life expectancy, Gitanos are set to suffer the impact of coronavirus in extreme and very specific ways. Their case evidences that the virus is not the great leveller; it most definitely does not treat everybody the same.

Spanish Gitanos, like Roma elsewhere in Europe, have entered the pandemic from an exceptionally disadvantaged position. This is how United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Aston described their predicament only eight weeks ago:

More than 80 percent of the Roma population face poverty or social exclusion and 46 percent are extremely poor with a monthly income below 310 euros. The child poverty rate stands at 89 percent and unemployment at 52 percent… Government officials agreed that the situation for many Roma people is dire, but I was struck by the lack of urgency and the resignation with which they accepted that entire parts of the population have been relegated to third class status without access to the rights to which they are entitled. After years of plans and benchmarks that have left Roma poverty indicators at deplorable levels, there is a real need for a crisis-level response.[vi]

Whereas the health of the Spanish population keeps improving and life expectancy is one of the highest in the world at 85.8 years, Gitano health is both poorer and static, and life expectancy lags 10 to 15 years behind the Spanish average. We know that Gitanos experience greater levels of COPD, obesity and diabetes,[vii] and that they are more likely to suffer serious health conditions which may impact whether individuals survive COVID-19. Additionally, there is evidence that encounters between the more dispossessed Gitanos and state institutions, including health services, are often occasions of punitive control.[viii]

Crucially, key determinant social factors of health—and in particular housing, occupation and income levels—place the Gitano community in an extremely vulnerable position vis-à-vis the pandemic. Given the shortage of affordable and social housing, 60% of Gitanos live in multi-family households—with two or more related nuclear families living together, for example occupying adjacent bedrooms in small high-raise apartments.[ix] This makes the avoidance of contagion to family members through self-isolation well-nigh impossible. Sub-standard housing conditions in inner-city areas or in slums, residential segregation in purpose-built ghettos, and overcrowding all affect disproportionally the Gitano community and will no doubt compound the effects of the pandemic.

Perturbing as all these facts are, their significance pales by comparison to the impact of the compulsory quarantine on the already limited capacity of large numbers of Gitano families to earn the most basic living. Almost 44% of Gitano men and 27% of Gitano women subsist through street vending, either in open-air markets or on foot.[x] Of these, few fulfill the requirements necessary to access the limited help that the Spanish government is providing for the self-employed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Scrap collectors and seasonal agricultural workers also find themselves in very precarious conditions. These are families who, in normal times, get up knowing that they must earn the money with which to feed their children that day. Confined in their homes because of the pandemic, they face not just utter destitution but starvation. According to an urgent statement issued by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano on the 24th March 2020, ‘we are speaking of approximately 47,000 people who right now lack the necessary food or basic supplies necessary for survival… and who do not already rely on any kind of state-provided economic support.’[xi]

In this situation, Gitano NGOs, some Evangelical church leaders as well as individual actors at local level are mobilising their networks and resources to provide what limited support they can. In urban Alicante, for example, the NGO FAGA[xii] attempted to lobby the local government after setting up a helpline and rapidly receiving calls from almost 300 Gitano families who found themselves in desperate need: many had run out of money and food; others had food but lacked basic supplies such as bottled gas to cook it. Roma NGOs throughout Spain are encountering the same situations.

What is clear is that without quick, decisive and inclusive action in the part of local and national state institutions these initiatives will be insufficient. This action must be taken and the suffering that so many Gitano families are undergoing must not, once again, be treated as an ‘unfortunate given rather than an intolerable failure.’[xiii]


[i] The Guardia Civil is the oldest law enforcement agency in Spain, combining a military organisation with police duties.

[ii] https://elpais.com/sociedad/2020-03-07/cuarentena-en-varias-zonas-de-la-rioja-tras-contagio-por-coronavirus-en-un-funeral-en-vitoria.html

[iii] https://elpais.com/espana/madrid/2020-03-14/de-las-colas-en-los-supermercados-a-las-aglomeraciones-en-la-sierra-de-madrid.html [iv]https://sevilla.abc.es/sevilla/sevi-incumplen-orden-confinamiento-tres-viviendas-202003181826_noticia.html

[v] See for example, Gay y Blasco, Paloma. 2016. 2016. ‘‘It’s the best place for them’: normalising Roma segregation in Madrid.’ Social Anthropology 24:4, pp. 446-461; Oleaque Moreno, Joan. 2014. Los gitanos en la prensa española: variación y reiteración de los planteamientos de los diarios ABC, El País, y La Vanguardia en la representación de los gitanos como grupo (1981-2010). Doctoral Thesis. University of Valencia.

[vi] Alston, Philip. 2020. Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on his visit to Spain, 27 January – 7 February 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25524&LangID=E (our emphasis).

[vii] Ministerio de Sanidad, Servicios Sociales e Igualdad, Dirección General de Salud Pública, Calidad e Innovación. Segunda encuesta nacional de salud a población Gitana, 2014. Madrid. MSSSI.

[viii] Ayala Rubio, Ariadna. 2014. La resocialización de la mujer gitana en los cursos de alfabetización de la Renta Mínima de Inserción, in Luis Puche Cabezas y Laura Alamillo-Martínez (Eds.), Educación y género: la incorporación de la desigualdad en múltiples contextos de socialización. Madrid. Traficantes de Sueños, Aragón Martín, Beatriz. 2017. Ill-timed patients: Gitanos, cultural difference and primary health care in a time of crisis. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), University College London; Arza Porras, Javier and María Félix Rodriguez Camacho. 2019. Competencia intercultural profesional en la atención socio-sanitaria a la población gitana en España. Alternativas. Cuadernos de Trabajo Social, 26, 2019, 59-82.

[ix] Fundación Secretariado Gitano. 2016. Study-Map on housing and the Roma population 2015, executive summary. Madrid. Fundación Secretariado Gitano. Page 10.

[x] Fundación Secretariado Gitano. 2019. Estudio comparado sobre la situación de la población gitana en España en relación al empleo y la pobreza 2018. Madrid. Fundación Secretariado Gitano. Page 37.

[xi] https://www.gitanos.org/actualidad/archivo/130992.html.es

[xii] Federación Autonómica de Asociaciones Gitanas de la Comunidad Valenciana.

[xiii] Wilson, Ruth Gilmore. 2002. Fatal couplings of power and difference: notes on racism and geography. The Professional Geographer 54(1): 15–24, page 17.

Paloma Gay y Blasco is an anthropologist at the University of St Andrews in the UK. She has written two books and multiple academic articles on a wide variety of issues relating to the Roma community in Spain.  María Félix Rodriguez Camacho is an occupational therapist and doctoral researcher at the University of Alicante in Spain. She leads the Health Program at the NGO FAGA, Federation of Gitano Associations of the Valencian Autonomic Community, and is a member of the Spanish State Advisory on Roma issues and of the Equi Sastipen Network. She has published on issues to do with health and the Roma community in Spain.