‘Protecting Our Own People’ in the Pandemic Politics?

‘Protecting Our Own People’ in the Pandemic Politics?

Julija Sardelić

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly transformed the social landscape we live in, either as citizens or as migrants. Political leaders from across the spectrum have been introducing travel and border restrictions as one of the most effective ways to fight COVID-19, a disease that has, for the time being, no known cure or vaccine. State leaders have justified the border restrictions (in some instances even border closures) as the most basic means of ‘protecting our own people’.

This raises a number of questions. Who counts as ‘our own people’ that the states protect? Citizens and possibly permanent residents, but not migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees? And are even all citizens considered as ‘our own people’?

When Boris Johnson was released from hospital after being treated for COVID-19, he specifically thanked two migrant NHS nurses for taking care of him in critical moments. This came as a recognition that migrant workers are essential for the UK.  Yet only as long as they are doing the job of ‘protecting our own people’. The politics of hostile environment continues towards them: their visas are only extended for the estimated duration of the pandemic.

Moreover, many undocumented migrants around the globe working in the food chain supply have very little hope of being recognized as essential or protected as ‘our own people’. However, as preliminary data shows, not even all citizens are fully protected in their own states. This becomes especially evident considering marginalized minority citizens such as Roma in different European states.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not the first transnational crisis where political leaders have resorted to the discourse of ‘putting our citizens first’.  As I’ve argued previously, a similar discourse appeared during the so-called 2015/16 refugee crisis and in its aftermath. Many political leaders, both in the old and new EU Member States, were reluctant to accept asylum seekers and refugees as they claimed this would overburden their welfare state and not leave enough for ‘our own citizens’.

However, the political leaders who were particularly vocal against accommodating refugees in their countries  at the time (such as Slovak Robert Fico, Hungarian Viktor Orban and Italian Matteo Salvini), also made a hierarchy within their own citizenry. One of the arguments was that these countries are facing challenges with integrating their own citizens who are ‘different’, all specifically referring to Roma. They blamed the ‘different culture’ of Roma as the main reason for their marginalization rather than looking at a long history of neglect and structural racism towards part of its own citizenry.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, this became coupled with the more apparent manifestations of racism. Through such manifestations Roma were excluded exempt from being protected as ‘our own people’.

Different governments have given similar advice to ‘their people’ on how to protect themselves as well as how to continue working and studying in self-isolation. Advice such as ‘wash your hands’, ‘apply social distancing’ and ‘continue your work and education over zoom in self-isolation’ might seem like generally applicable common sense. However, even following such seemingly simple rules can be a challenge for people without proper housing and without access to water and electricity.

For example, media reports argued that in some countries, such as India, ‘social distancing is a privilege of the middle class’. But looking more closely, also countries in Europe have citizens for whom taking the measures recommended by their governments is a privilege, such as Roma. This is not because of a special Romani culture, but because of the wide-spread belief that it is acceptable for Roma to live without access to basic infrastructure and proper housing.

According to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), 80 per cent of Roma in different EU Member States live below the poverty line of their countries. Such poverty manifests itself, among other things, in inadequate housing and also in limited or no access to clean running water: 30 per cent of Romani households surveyed by the FRA had no access to tap water. A number of NGOs, especially the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), have therefore asked the question: how could the EU’s most vulnerable citizens follow their government’s advice, when the state has not provided the basic means to do so?

As the ERRC pointed out: without having access to water, one cannot wash their hands. Without a proper housing situation, one cannot adequately practice self-isolation. And this does not even start the debate about having access to the new mode of online education (without access to internet and in some cases even electricity).

According to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) research, in many EU Members states, both old (France) and new ones (Slovenia) among them, there are Roma communities without access to water. In March, just before the European-wide COVID-19 lockdowns, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) made a ruling in the case Hudorović and Others v. Slovenia. The Court concluded that the Slovenian state did not violate the European Convention of Human Rights because the Romani families in question did not have access to drinking water and sanitation.

Slovenia has the rights to drinking water enshrined in its Constitution (Article 70a). However, the Slovenian Government representative argued in front of the ECtHR that the state is not obliged to ensure access to public water supply to the informal settlements in which Roma live (ignoring the long history of why Roma were not able to formalize their settlements): the blame for not having access to drinking water was reverted back to Roma, blaming their ‘difference’ for not having access to drinking water. The Government representative also argued that Roma are not discriminated against as there are non-Roma living in remote villages without access to the public water supply. Of course, looking at it proportionally, being born in a Romani community makes it much more likely that one will be without access to water, and therefore unable to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 by hand washing.

Countries around Europe have responded differently to the challenge of protecting their citizens and residents in the COVID-19 pandemic. While there have been positive cases where the governments started working on providing access to water also to the most marginalized communities, others have pushed towards harsher restriction for Roma with inadequate housing and access to water.

For example, in Greece (among other countries), the inhabitants of a Romani community in Larissa have been quarantined by the authorities, who described them as ‘ticking time bombs’ for the spread of COVID-19. Instead of asking the question, why this Romani community has been forced to live in squalid conditions, it was easier to stigmatise it further as spreaders of disease. Instead of being protected as ‘our own people’, a part of citizenry, they were considered a ‘problematic minority’ more likely to be endangering other citizens. To protect ‘our own people’, some citizens had their rights more harshly curtailed.

During the times of crisis, some states have argued that special rights of marginalized minorities cannot be in the forefront of the discussion. However, the right to access healthcare, the right to access water and adequate housing are not special rights of minorities but rights that all individuals should have: both during pandemics as well as in more non-crisis times. As long as racism shapes the idea of who are ‘our own people’ who need to be protected, the rights of all, not just minorities, are questionable.


Julija Sardelić is a Lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington

Image Credit: Author’s own image