Between ‘death worlds’ and resistance: the Roma in Romania during the COVID-19 crisis

Between ‘death worlds’ and resistance: the Roma in Romania during the COVID-19 crisis

Simina Dragos

On the evening of the 19th of April – Easter Sunday for many Romanians – a single mum and her children were watching Titanic in their bed. Suddenly, policemen stormed their house, physically aggressed the mother and pushed her outside of her home. They did not have a search warrant. They threatened to beat her, called her a ‘crow’ (a racial slur) and took her and her 6-year-old to the police station, along with several neighbours, as suspects in the Rahova case, in which a party in someone’s backyard was stopped through a violent clash between police and civilians. All suspects – including the 6-year-old – were forced to stand in front of the police station for four hours in the cold April night. If one needed the toilet, police officers would make them urinate outside, slightly farther away from the others. If one was thirsty, they got water through a hose.

You’re probably already angrily wondering how such inhumane treatment is possible. What you don’t know yet is that the ‘suspects’ are Roma, the ‘outsiders-within’ of several European states, the ‘second-class citizens’ from whose sustained oppression we systematically look away. Their historically-burdened position within the Romanian state allowed those police officers to treat them as ‘less-than-human’, without being held accountable, evoking painful images from the 1940s [1].

I argue that, in Romania, the coronavirus-triggered state of emergency and consequent lockdown highlight the violent nature of the relationship between the Romanian state and its Romani citizens – a relationship with potentially deadly consequences. However, the lockdown also shows the importance of Romani activism and solidarity. To argue this, I will first address the state of emergency in Romania and what I think it showed, to then turn to the figure of the Roma constructed by the media, and the importance of highlighting Romani collective action.

The state of emergency unmasked the racist violence in the Romanian nation-state
The state of emergency was triggered in Romania on the 16th March and lasted until the 16th of May, with Romania now easing its relatively strict lockdown. This is perhaps a good time to look back on what happened, thinking about what it revealed about the Romanian state.

It feels perhaps obvious, but it can be helpful to think about the state of emergency as it emerged in most European countries through the lens of Agamben’s state of exception [2]. To put it *very* simply, the state of exception can be triggered by the sovereign to protect the polity from a perceived threat/enemy. Accordingly, the rule of law and ‘the normal’ are basically suspended in the name of the greater good. The ‘rule of law’ includes human and civil rights; this was applicable to the Romania, as it quietly derogated from the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).

This was worrying because it showed us just how temporary and vulnerable human rights frameworks are. It was particularly worrying because it underscored how precarious the situation of Romani citizens in Europe really is, as much of the critique to Romani oppression and many Roma inclusion strategies are premised on the existence and salience of human rights frameworks. But without human and civil rights, what are Romani citizens in Romania and elsewhere left with?

This question was, sadly, also answered by the state of exception in Romania. The fact that the Romanian state treats Romani people as second-class citizens, as its ‘outsiders-within’, was emphasised during this lockdown. Not only did racism and anti-Roma hatred rise, but scapegoating of the Roma for the pandemic is also flourishing – for example, a former Romanian president called in on national television just to make some racist comments.

Such racist discourses evoke and recycle tropes and images that are not new to the Romanian landscape, having been mobilized in the context of the deportation of the Roma to Transnistria during the Holocaust. Our Roma neighbours, friends, family members – co-citizens – are constructed as ‘backward’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘unhygienic’ and ‘threatening the public order’, which was exactly the pretext used for the deportations in the 1940s.

Whilst discourses can shape social realities in general, the ones mentioned above have, unfortunately, materialised in a disturbing amount of racialised police brutality. The police seemed to take it upon themselves to protect ‘the public’ from the Roma ‘threat’ by severely beating people up, basically torturing Romanian citizens, including minors. Unnecessary to mention that ‘breaking lockdown rules’ was merely a pretext to enact racism.

Moreover, the police as an institution took no real measures after videos of officers assaulting citizens reached the public, which illustrates how structurally entrenched racism is in the Romanian state. It seems as though this is not something that happened only in Romania, which reveals a wider trend of police behaviour that should raise questions to us all; it exemplifies how states can turn against their own citizens with legitimate human and civil rights inscribed in constitutions, once the state of exception is triggered. The racist discourses coupled with the police brutality should be alarming to us all, especially in an ever more nationalistic and totalitarian Central and Eastern European landscape.

Additionally, hundreds of years of structural inequalities caught up with the Romanian state. Due to lack of infrastructure, poverty and overcrowding, some Roma settlements became what Mbembe would call ‘death worlds’, and some Romani citizens became ‘living dead’ [3]– here’s a great discussion furthering this idea. Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania blocked Roma people in settlements, over-surveilling them and keeping them away from their livelihoods.

This situation in which entire communities depend on daily income and have no access to clean water is not arbitrary, but the result of sustained structural inequalities leading to a sort of structural death. The ‘death worlds’ were created not just by sending the military to settlements, to keep people from leaving for work, but also by forcing many Romani communities in poverty through structural racism and lack of distributive justice.

Thus, the state of emergency revealed how the Romanian nation-state is built on a violent and racist relationship. Conversely, this also showcases how the liberal ideals embedded in the modern nation-state such as liberty and equality are nothing more than that. Overall, though, the lockdown and its consequences send the clear message that Roma inclusion is a business that the European Union (EU) and its member states engage in when it’s convenient (see EU delaying its new Roma integration strategy) – not at all a priority, as they claim it to be.

The figure of the Roma in the COVID-19 imaginary
Another issue that I wanted to address is the image of the Roma constructed through the media in this pandemic. Overwhelmingly, the media both nationally and internationally essentialised the Roma as a poor, agency-less and homogenous group at the margin of Europe (see here for the Guardian’s take).

Not to mention the EU Council’s unsettling video campaign titled “The Roma – Europe’s forgotten people”, in which dirt is thrown into the faces of (presumably) Romani individuals, who are shown handcuffed. The message is that we should respect the Roma because they are doctors, students or actors and are ‘no different than you’. Imagine – just imagine – that we could respect people even if they were different than us, even if they spoke a different language or didn’t have ‘high-skilled’ jobs. This reveals the EU’s understanding of ‘inclusion’ which is basically assimilation.

Don’t get me wrong: we should all be informed about the sustained racialised oppression faced by Roma communities, and the press *should* hold governments accountable, as should we. But if that’s the only image (or that of deviance and criminality) that is painted in the ‘public domain’ about Romani communities, that’s how they will be perceived: homogenous agency-less, voiceless, victims.

What is not shown in the picture – certainly not in the COVID-19 picture – is the hard work of Romani grassroots movements, the collective action and solidarity. In Romania, groups like Aresel, E-Romnja or the Civic Union of Roma Youth of Romania have been in constant dialogue with communities, organised help for those in need, held the government accountable, showing the strength of Romani resistance. Their perspectives should be listened to and their work known, if we were to come out of this lockdown recognising that things need to change.

I conclude both on a worried and a hopeful tone. The lockdown did show us that racism is a deadly reality of the Romanian state. I am really worried about what might come for Roma communities in Europe. President Iohannis recently said that Romania is not going back to normalcy after the 15th of May. I sure don’t want to go back to a ‘normal’ where torturing citizens and racism on national TV are considered acceptable, but I also don’t want Romanian society to head into a future defined even more by racialised nationalism – the same President Iohannis recently instigated to inter-ethnic conflict. Still, I am also hopeful because Romani activists and scholars have clear visions of how we might overcome racism in Romania – see here for a brilliant discussion in English or here for a great interview in Romanian. As Romanians, it is our historical responsibility to help realise these.


[1] Around 25,000 Romani people were deported to camps in Transnistria during the 1940s as the result of a eugenic policy of the Romanian state. Many died in those camps because of the deadly working conditions, lack of food, clothing or shelter. For more details see: Achim, V. (2013). The Roma in Romanian History. Budapest: Central European University Press.
[2] Agamben, G. (2003). State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[3] Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press. (I recently wrote a short overview of Mbembe’s argument in Necropolitics here)


Simina Dragos is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge. She grew up in Romania until she moved to Cambridge in 2016 for her BA. She tweets @siminadragos26

Image Credit: Picture from an anti-corruption protest in Arad, Romania on the 1/2/2017. Courtesy of Flavia Dragoș