Home Research Confidential – Roma and Covid-19
by Stefánia Toma
In February 2020 I was dreaming about the upcoming spring and summer. I was supposed to start again my field visits in the Roma communities of Transylvania, beginning my mornings with freshly grounded coffee, rich breakfasts and pálinka (local short drink, in Hungarian). I would have slept in the evening after long kilometers (and hours) of walking, talking, working, and listening.
But now, all these remained past experiences and only a theoretical possibility in an unpredictable future with the heft of a risk-taking decision. There are many lifted restrictions by now; and I have already field-invitations and a lot of ideas for field research, but when will it be the proper moment for everybody that does not carry any risks? I raise this question from the safety of my home and office, using my computer, smartphones and one of my biggest concerns is that probably I have to acquire new, online research skills and tools, and have to develop a friendlier relationship with social media because that will be my new way into field research for a while.
In the meantime, my old and beloved acquaintances from the field are continuously asking me by phone when I visit them. Some of them live in ethnically mixed communities, others in segregated Roma only settlements with limited access to infrastructures or social services. Many of them are unemployed, trying to find their ways into the informal sphere of economy or by going abroad. The schooling of their children was a seemingly never-ending struggle with prejudices. Deconstructing the prejudices and stigma on Roma is slow: because they remain to be seen as “dirty, thieves, lazy, cheater, toxic…” presence in the Romanian society. They even “invaded” other European countries. And they are coming HOME now. The images of return migration and the negative attitudes attached to it are omnipresent in the new media space. The former president of Romania just enunciated these days: “Parts of Gypsy clans returned home and they seem to flatly refuse to obey the laws of the country” (www.facebook.com/PresedinteleTraianBasescu/posts/3456757047671155).
During the pandemic we received three main messages: stay at home, practice social distancing, and wash your hands. In many cases these were translated in public discourses, attitudes and behaviors as xenophobic, anti-migrant and anti-Roma hatred and collective ethnic scapegoating that sometimes took the form of (ethnic) violence. Roma were even blamed for the local spread of the pandemic. It has been too rapidly forgotten that living in a marginalized, segregated community and being a member of a stigmatized and discriminated against community means that you don’t have a HOME with all the meanings and functions that the literature assigns to it. For the vulnerable, HOME is the community, the family, the social networks, the institutions; it is rather a closer concept to social SOLIDARITY.
The pandemic confined me, as a researcher, to renounce to visits in the welcoming homes of the Roma, to stay between the walls of my house and to immerse (virtually) into that social world that supposedly should be HOME for the vulnerable too, instead it constantly rejects and blames them. The disruption for them is nothing new, but the pandemic and the attendant reactions only intensified social divisions, increased inequalities and re-created and strengthened hierarchies, blaming migration in the era of mobility. They also emphasized the importance to be reflexive, responsible and present researchers