“Until we are able to gas them like the Nazis, the Roma will infect the nation:” Roma and the ethnicization of COVID-19 in Romania

Amid fears of the global spread of COVID-19, Romanian society fails to keep racism towards Roma at bay.

When an airport worker posted a video of himself insulting a group of Roma who had just landed in Bucharest, it garnered thousands of racist comments inciting one young woman to white-supremacist musings on the mass-murder of Roma: “until we’re able to gas them like the Nazis, they [Roma] will infect a nation.”

In the last few weeks, the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, have been the victims of countless incidents of COVID-19 related hate-speech, online harassment, and other forms of human rights violations. Mass-media has scapegoated the Roma in Romania, posts on social media deploy tired stereotypes and instigate a shocking amount of violent hate-speech, and multiple videos of police abuse toward Roma have also surfaced.

This surge in anti-Roma sentiment in the form of racist media coverage, xenophobic posts and commentary on social media, and police violence demonstrates just how deeply entrenched racism towards the Roma remains today.

Articles in major U.S. news outlets counter the racialization of COVID-19, condemning violence, xenophobia and hate-speech towards Asian-Americans. Yet, when it comes to Roma, the last acceptable form of racism, prejudiced reporting and sensationalist falsities prevail across Europe. Mass-media as well as viral social media posts have ethnicized the COVID-19 virus, blaming Roma for the spread of the disease within national borders.

This biased reporting in Romania stokes the already rampant xenophobia in the country and instigates a gross amount of hate-speech toward the stigmatized and persecuted ethnic minority. Tens of thousands entered Romania in the last three weeks, not all of whom are Roma. But, the return of the Roma is not a welcomed one, thus it prompts clickbait headlines that cast Roma in a suspicious and negative light.

What underpins this recent manifestation of xenophobia is stark ethno-nationalism, which defines “the nation” homogenously—as consisting only of ethnic majoritarians—and spurs violent hate-speech against the Roma. Sarah Ahmed explains that a xenophobic narrative “works through othering; the ‘illegal immigrants’ … are those who are ‘not us’, and who in not being us, endanger what is ours […] threaten to take away from what ‘you’ have, as the legitimate subject of the nation, as the one who is the true recipient of national benefits.”

Though the Romanian-Roma here in question are not “illegal”— they are not immigrants at all— they are treated as the “illegitimate other” who “endangers” what belongs to ethnic Romanians, who consider themselves as the sole “legitimate subjects of the nation.”

What we’re witnessing is rhetoric that is borne of an ideology of white supremacy in which Roma do not make up part of the nation, in fact, they threaten it, as a contagion, spoiling its purported homogeneity. Roma bodies have long been considered a biological threat to the health of the body politic.

WWII-era eugenicists advocated for the sterilization and interment of the ethnic group because Roma bodies were considered “a source of shame and a source of infection of all social diseases.” That is how Roma were described by the Romanian eugenicist Gheorghe Făcăoaru, in his 1941 book Data Regarding the Family and the Biopolitical State.

This rhetoric is borne of an ideology that caused the genocide of 11,000 Roma in Romania alone. The notion of Roma as biological threat to the dominant population persists in the way majority society has racialized COVID-19.

We continuously fail to learn from the past.

There are countless examples I could rehearse here. “Now you’re returning home with your skirts (traditional Roma dress) full of stolen money…you’re coming to kill our elderly, our parents,” writes a flight attendant addressing the Roma in a Facebook post that was picked up by numerous news outlets. “So that it’s clear!!! The Chinese caught the virus from their bats, and we’ll catch it from our crows,” reads a racist meme shared by a respected public intellectual, which refers to Roma by a pejorative zoomorphism and racist insult.

The hyperbolic treatment in the news of Roma returning home mixes old xenophobia with new conditions within which to exercise that hatred. A short-circuited response that defaults to stereotyping and othering, falls back on xenophobic ideology allowing reporters and everyday citizens alike to latch on to the simple story, the racist one, not only because it might up ratings, but also because these prejudices are so deeply ingrained that simply seeing a brown body crossing a border or walking down the street precipitates the stereotypes to which these simple narratives conform.

White anxiety surrounding the movement of Roma has been an issue for centuries. From the Egyptians Act of 1530, to restrictions of Roma movement during the Hapsburg Empire to violent efforts to forcibly settle nomadic or semi-nomadic Roma in the 20th century, ambulatory brown bodies across or within ethno-national boundaries have inspired fear in the dominant population.

A fear that majoritarians quell with aggressive xenophobia, which begins with harassment, racists laws and public policies and eventually ends, as was the case during WWII for Roma, in genocide.

Unsanctioned contemporary racism

Behind a thin veil of altruism—in coverage that is not blatantly racist yet hyper-focuses on ethnicity—lurks the insidious cultural argument that the behavior of a handful of Roma who have been plastered across the news can be attributed to their ethnicity. The insinuation is that Roma are uneducated, undisciplined and refuse to “socially isolate” because they are Roma. This kind of “culture-blaming” shrouds persistent issues of structural inequality in an exoticized explanation of individual behavior and impedes majority society’s ability to comprehend and empathize with the very real struggle of Roma during this pandemic.

A TV reporter made precisely such an exoticizing cultural argument when the Romanian government placed Țăndărei, a city with a large population of Roma, under quarantine: “…actually to be direct, we’re talking about a community of Roma that, from a socio-cultural point-of-view decided not to respect the restrictions.” Though many have failed to practice the physical distancing this pandemic requires of us, only the Roma are targeted in the media and by government officials and reprimanded.

When an entire hospital went on lockdown when a non-Roma person lied about his travel itinerary, the entire Romanian ethnic group was not called upon to answer for the behavior of this one person. In the case of Roma, however, ethnic, cultural, and racial explanations proliferate.

Even the prime minister of Romania echoed this same prejudice in his official message on 8 April, International Romani Day, urging the Roma community to “support the efforts we are making across the country to stop the spread of coronavirus and to comply with the measures taken by the authorities to protect you,” as if the entire community failed to respect government orders.

The socio-cultural “argument” very easily devolves into biological racism: “No, it’s not society’s fault that they are like this… that’s how they are genetically,” as one commentator posts. A government official intoned the same biological argument in attempting to contact trace where a young Roma girl became infected with COVID-19: “this girl could be positive also from another environment, not only from school. I understand that she is from a Roma family.”

What is this socio-cultural or genetic argument in fact alluding to? What kind of epistemological assumptions underpin the kind of statements quoted above? Much of the xenophobia is simple scapegoating, a fervent need to locate blame often falls on a group that is already marked by alterity. The other element is the biopolitical one described above—the historical conception of Roma bodies as a contagion to the homogenous and “pure nation.”

There is yet one more facet to the racism of the contemporary moment and it is a strain of racist thought that justified colonialism, slavery and domination in the past and now justifies the abhorrent treatment of Roma in the present. Namely, the dehumanization of Roma.

The racist zoomorphism for Roma “crow” (cioara, s., ciori, pl.) enacts this dehumanization.

As Hannah Arendt explained, what makes the “savage” different from civilized humans is “less the color of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature.” A dichotomy has emerged between Nature as villain and Science as hero as Nature threatens us in the form of a virus that has pitted itself against all technological advancement and medical innovation and seems to be winning. The supposed proximity of a “savage” to nature—that which delivered us the novel coronavirus—means the life of the “savage” is part of the threat, part of the disease.

They, too, threaten the health and safety of the body politic as disease-carriers. Their own risks as human victims to this virus are of no concern.

Put simply, if civilization is synonymous with science, medicine, modernity, and technology, then it is foiled by those living in poverty, and squalor like many Roma, who lack access to all things that index “civilization,” like running water. Hence the onslaught of villainization, blame, and equating Roma with the biological threat on “civilized” (read: White) life.

Racism, of course, doesn’t remain at the level of discourse in the form of hate-speech. As long as renascent racism remains unsanctioned in the public sphere it will undoubtedly give way to violence. Hate-speech that society fails to condemn for the sake of “free-speech” or in a reactionary response to “political correctness” emboldens violence.

A video posted in a nationalist group called “Romania” on Facebook depicts a gendarme dragging an older Romani woman across the street and into a gated courtyard, presumably her place of residence, throwing her forcefully to the ground, followed by two other gendarmes painfully dragging an elderly Romani man into the same courtyard while he screams, “good people, they’re twisting my arm, good people.”

The video, so far, has spurred 29,000 reactions, 23,000 shares and nearly 8,000 comments. Most comments congratulate the gendarmes for a job well done because brute force is the only way to “discipline these people.” Other comments consist of Hitler memes, an image of a crow (a pejorative zoomorphism for Roma) being lynched or a sickening video in which the commenter pays two poor Roma women to shout, “Viva Antonescu,”—the man responsible for the deportation and deaths of thousands of Roma—multiple times for his own sick amusement.

Sadly, this is not an isolated instance of police violence as more such abuses will continue to emerge across Europe. A recent video filmed from a balcony in Romania shows two police officers checking a young Roma boy’s ID and declaration explaining why he has left his house. Before letting him carry on one of the officers kicks the boy in the leg for no reason other than power corrupts us morally.

The instances of hate-speech I describe above are not by any means anomalous.

Without fail the comments section on any article or post related to the Roma devolves into a space for racists to air appalling race purity discourse. Innumerable comments invoke the names Hitler and Antonescu lamenting that the WWII-era fascist regimes didn’t “finish the job” and successfully rid the world of all Roma.

Why has majority society, during a time of crisis, reverted to such crude, violent and nonchalant racist rhetoric?

New conditions for persistent racism

Latent is not the right word to characterize the vitriolic and innumerable instances of hate speech directed toward the Roma community in recent weeks. That would imply that this racism has been kept in check until now.

This, rather, is a moment of sincerity in which long-held prejudices become presumably admissible. The ethical threads holding civil society together begin to fray, what is moral and the good lose meaning. People —from reporters and government officials to police officers and “intellectuals” and university professors—no longer stifle or feel obliged to restrain from expressing racist opinions. All bets are off.

No, the COVID-19 pandemic does not incite new racism towards the Roma community, nor does it act as a catalyst for dormant racism. It simply produces new conditions for the persistent racism towards Roma to foment and precipitate in new contexts.

But this racism has been there all along.

It was alive during slavery and active during the Holocaust. It explains the gap between non-Roma and Roma mortality rates and it is the reason Roma are more vulnerable during this pandemic. The same discursive formations and the same stereotypes are being deployed, only in new permutations. But the stakes are much higher now as this public health crisis develops.

Though the racism we see rearing its neo-Nazi head in the midst of this pandemic is not new, this does not make it any less dangerous. Historical discrimination, marginalization, enslavement, genocide, segregation and structural inequality have forced Roma into abject poverty. The situation of Roma in present-day Europe comes as a direct consequence of this historical persecution. Yet, majoritarian society lacks awareness of this history and it is precisely this “culpable ignorance” that feeds continued racist conceptions.

These historical circumstances also mean that Roma face greater health risks in the midst of COVID-19. The pandemic poses specific challenges for Roma in Europe and Eastern Europe curtailing their already precarious sources of income, driving them deeper into poverty, due to heightened quarantining of Roma communities.

Activists and NGOs have called upon the European governments, drafting petitions and open letters to rectify what centuries of discrimination, persecution and segregation have caused. As activist Enikö Vincze observed regarding Pata Rât—a garbage heap outside of Cluj that over 70 Roma families call home— “living in overcrowded conditions, [Roma] are extremely exposed to rapid-fire transmission of viruses and bacteria. In addition, the lack of basic utilities such as water and electricity, makes hygiene, much needed during this period, an even greater challenge for these people.”

As is true in the American South, Roma enter into this global pandemic with pre-existing health conditions, which come as a direct consequence of their lack of access to medical care, and makes them more likely to die if infected.

When the pandemic ends, the effects of these living conditions on the lives and deaths of Roma will not be quantified. Articles in the U.S. already note that African-Americans are dying at much higher rates than others. We don’t and probably won’t have that kind of data, but the parallels between the marginalization of these communities will have the same outcome.

When it comes to the Roma, what will remain in the wake of COVID-19 are xenophobic narratives that are currently circulating and an increased tolerance of intolerance for this people.

Coronavirus is not the great equalizer

Persistent racism will now function to excuse the suffering that Roma will endure during this pandemic due to decades of State negligence. Sustaining racist attitudes that not only blame Roma for their own conditions but also for the spread of the virus more broadly means the State can wash its hands of any responsibility toward the Roma community. Perpetuating narratives that “explain” Roma poverty because of their “culture” pardons the State and obscures the historical circumstances that have led us here.

Roma do not live in poverty because of their culture or the makeup of their DNA; Fascist regimes intent on exterminating and marginalizing the Roma have forced them into abject poverty for centuries.

The difficulties marginalized communities face across the globe—the heightened precariousness of their health and safety during this epidemic—comes as a direct result of historical and racist processes. Many Roma will die because of COVID-19 and the current narratives will serve the State in being able to remain blameless in their deaths.

COVID-19 is not the great equalizer.

A Roma person is more likely to contract the virus because as many NGO’s have asked rhetorically, “How are you supposed to wash your hands if you don’t have running water?” In a world of increased sovereign state power, a dark-skinned Roma citizen will be harassed on the street by gendarmes drunk on the power that a state-of-emergency bestowed upon them.

These things are already happening. It is hard to believe that in a society in which Roma are refused medical care outright by medical professionals because of their ethnicity that a hospital bed will ever be given to a Roma patient when the Romanian medical system reaches its breaking point.

A pandemic such as this one does not create the social Darwinism Foucault warned of, it simply throws it into relief, sharpens the image so we can truly see the tribalism, racism and eugenics through a clearer lens.

The challenges, to put it lightly, that Roma face and will continue to face as this crisis unfolds— discrimination, harassment, scapegoating— are not new, they are a continuation of centuries of marginalization and persecution, but they have intensified and will continue to increase.

Imbalances of power in civil society mean some bodies are forced into states of being that lie more towards the death-pole on the life-death spectrum.

Achille Mbembe aptly terms this necropolitics, which he defines as “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death.” The situation of Roma in Europe, especially in the context of the COVID-19 global crisis, uncannily fits Mbembe’s explanation of necropower as “new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”

Necropolitics demonstrates how some life is deemed more or less valuable by the State, meaning some life is expendable. These are the living dead or what Agamben refers to as “bare-life.” Ideologies of white supremacy—without which we would have no racism— hinge on this hierarchy of life.

A global crisis, such as the one we currently face, breathes new life into psychological mechanisms of territorialism, tribalism, ethno-nationalism, which, in turn, feed racism and buttress the hierarchy of life in which Roma life is considered nonessential.

These mechanisms are both imposed upon us by an ideological apparatus in the form of government actions which mirror these prejudices and by our own rampant individualism that impedes our ability to sympathize with the suffering of an Other.

Lack of access to basic utilities and medical care means that a public health crisis such as this disproportionately affects the Roma, who are the most vulnerable members of European society. This is how Roma existence has been rendered “bare” throughout history and continues to be denigrated in our contemporary world and has led to the precariousness of Roma life during this global pandemic.

Extreme and historical power imbalances, mixed with long-standing inequality and the state-of-emergency COVID-19 conferred on the entire world results in a poisonous concoction for Roma communities across Europe. During a world-wide pandemic like this one, what happens, then, to subjects, like the Roma, whose lives have already been reduced to “bare-life”? Perhaps, a better question: what will society do to render “bare-life” liveable again?

Ioanida Costache is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. She currently lives in Bucharest, Romania where she researches issues of race and ethnicity, culture, identity, memory, trauma, and history as they intersect in Romanian-Romani music.

Illustrations by Tuan Nini.