By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Leaders of Hungary's Roma people said on Tuesday the coronavirus pandemic posed a grave threat to the already precarious status of the marginalised minority, with many Roma feeling abandoned by the nationalist government.
Populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban presented a massive action plan on Monday to mitigate the economic fall-out from the highly contagious disease, focusing on bolstering investment and employment but bypassing the very poor.
Roma communities across eastern Europe are impoverished, plagued by high unemployment and historically the target of discrimination and scapegoating especially in times of crisis, and the coronavirus outbreak has many feeling more vulnerable.
Hungarian Roma have begun to report increased tensions, including discrimination as layoffs begin to hit the economy.
"From the very first moment, the economic crisis has had a huge impact especially in segregated rural areas," said Erno Kadet, a rights activist at Hungary's Roma Press Centre. "They have zero savings, zero buffer...The government ignores them."
Innovation and Technology Minster Laszlo Palkovics mentioned no measure that could help the Roma at a Tuesday briefing. Loan, training, tax and wage programmes he outlined "are in the interest of all Hungarians", a government spokesman said.
He repeated that remark when asked about any specific programmes for Roma.
In February, Orban indicated the government would ignore a court order to pay compensation to Roma children who had been unlawfully segregated in a school in eastern Hungary.
Orban's Fidesz party said people linked to Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, who promotes liberal causes, helped Roma launch lawsuits, prompting a petition protesting that Fidesz's stance could promote hatred between Roma and non-Roma.
Thousands of Hungarians including Roma families and civic activists marched to parliament in protest, but the issue took a back seat as the coronavirus swept across Europe.
The row reflected the anti-Roma resentment, discrimination and even segregation common in Hungary, as in other areas of eastern Europe, and Roma fear a new bout of scapegoating over the economic slump triggered by the coronavirus.
Activist Karoly Buza recounted a case where a Roma employee of a fast food restaurant in Szeged, southern Hungary, was laid off while all co-workers were retained, including more junior colleagues.
"This reminds me of the (1989-90) fall of Communism, when Roma were the first to be fired," Buza wrote on Facebook. "We need unity and solidarity from everyone in these hard times."
Roma typically work precarious day jobs in agriculture and construction or in the hospitality sector such as street musicians, hotel maids or in restaurant kitchens.
Figures for income and unemployment among Roma are not available, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are much more prone to joblessness and have only a small fraction of the country's average income to share among large extended families.
HEIGHTENED RISK TO HEALTH
Poorer health standards within Roma communities also figure in their heightened vulnerability to the impact of the pandemic.
Northeastern Hungary, where hundreds of thousands of Roma are concentrated, has been mostly spared so far from the pandemic, according to government figures. About half of Hungary's 817 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been from the Budapest capital region, and 38 people have died.
But any spread of the epidemic into Roma communities could wreak havoc as many Roma have pre-existing lung infections or diabetes that elevate risk in case of infection with the COVID-19 respiratory disease, community leaders say.
Gabor Varadi, a Roma leader in Miskolc, eastern Hungary, said even basic levels of hygiene are lacking in some destitute communities, and Roma could not or would not obey curfew orders if their families starved at home as a result.
Several European Union rights bodies warned on Tuesday that Roma communities often lack running water and up to 80% of Roma in some countries live in cramped, overcrowded housing.
"This makes physical distancing, a key element of public health measures (against coronavirus), close to impossible," the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said in a report.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)