In Hungary, COVID takes its biggest toll on the poor settlements

In the year 2020, the epidemic and the ensuing restrictions further amplified the past difficulties of the most vulnerable and underprivileged sections of Hungarian society, and now more than ever they seem to be on the losing side of the current situation. In addition to this, the coronavirus has more severe consequences for those living in poverty. The Hungarian government should pay special attention to these people, and targeted measures must be taken to prevent further serious losses. Nevertheless there are no special measures taking place, during this time of the epidemic the government forgets about this strata of society just as much as it did before.

TASZ (HCLU) has prepared a detailed analysis, which has been forwarded to parliamentary parties and central government in order for them to take immediate, effective and targeted measures to improve the situation of people living in deep poverty.

Situation of people living in deep poverty in Hungary

There are hundreds of disadvantaged settlements and about 1,300 segregated ghettos in Hungary. Among those living in deep poverty in the ghettos, people of Roma origin are highly over-represented, accounting for about 7-9% of the total Hungarian population. From the infrastructural point of view (health care, social services, services, food, medicine, transport) these are settlements and ghettos that are socially and economically severely backward areas. The families living there do not have any reserves (be it financial or provisions), their livelihoods are ensured from day to day only by the scarce odd jobs in the area, the usury loan and public employment. Their children often only get the right amount of hot food in educational institutions.

Covid 19 virus is more dangerous for disadvantaged people, especially those living in poor settlements, mostly Roma, than for members of the majority.

People living in deep poverty are in significantly worse health conditions and their life expectancy is significantly shorter than in the majority society. Housing conditions are poor, hygiene conditions are poor, many households have no running water, hence they often carry water for hundreds of meters. Poor settlements typically have several generations living together in a small house, without the possibility of any kind of separation, therefore frequent overcrowding is usual, a remarkably high number of people living in the same household, and a very low number of square meters per capita. Working-age people typically do physical work that cannot be done from home.

In these settlements, health services are also much more difficult to access, and in many small settlements there is no GP. There are no pharmacies in the disadvantaged settlements and you have to travel far for all the examinations and services.

Impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on Hungarian citizens living in deep poverty

Because of the above, Covid-19 disease is more dangerous to people living in deep poverty, mostly Roma, than to the average majority society. Therefore, proportionally many more are likely to die of Covid, but accurate data on this is not available as the government does not even publish county-level data, let alone settlement-level data.

In Hungary, free testing is performed only in cases found to be suspicious by the GP, there is no free preventive testing. Therefore, and due to the isolation of settlements, testing is often delayed. Isolation of patients cannot be solved anyway due to the aforementioned overcrowded housing conditions, so everyone within a household typically gets infected.

People, municipalities and public employers cannot afford masks and disinfectants. People cannot afford buying necessary medication. Municipalities and minority self-governments cannot give a hand in lack of resources. Budgetary deficit of municipalities is a serious issue.

Authentic information does not reach those affected, many “do not believe” in the epidemic, vaccination take up is much lower than in the majority society. In Hungary, those who apply for vaccination must register on a government website. People living in deep poverty have limited access to the internet, which is why many do not register and do not even know where to register.

Care for people in need of health care due to other diseases unrelated to Covid is at an even more catastrophic level than in pre-epidemic times. In these social strata, underlying diseases appear much sooner and are often left unattended (difficulties in accessing care and medicines).

Lack of computers and internet access, crowded housing conditions, parental under-education (unable to help with learning), and power shortage in many households severely impairs access to education for students in distance learning. Distance learning often ended up with someone sending or taking the homework to the children. This was a more significant problem in the first phase of the epidemic, as primary schools were closed at that time for months. However, primary schools were closed on 8 March 2021 again, therefore the educational disadvantages will reappear.

The economic effects of the epidemic are also much more severe among those living in poverty as they face severe livelihood difficulties. During the first wave a lot of people lost their everyday work, their work abroad. People have no reserves. If they are quarantined they have no income and are practically starving, so there definitely isn’t enough money for firewood, utility bills, rent or medicine.

Interviewed by the HCLU field workers in 14 different BAZ county settlements, people in epidemiological isolation ordered by a GP due to infection reported that the police checked several times a day to see if they were at home, which often made them feel intimidated. We did not hear about such a practice in Budapest or other large cities, at most, random inspections were carried out. Similarly, it appears from the reports that the curfew is also much more strictly controlled by the police in small rural settlements than in the capital.

Immediate effective and targeted government actions are needed

According to the HCLU, special epidemiological measures are needed in relation to the inhabitants of segregated and disadvantaged settlements, reflecting the circumstances described above. The HCLU sent out the following demands to the government:

  • Crisis support should be provided to the municipalities concerned

  • The possibility of free testing should be expanded, and testing should be faster

  • The state should publish infection and mortality data broken down by county, district and municipality

  • Those affected should be clearly informed about the effectiveness and importance of vaccinations and how to register

  • Vaccination campaigns should be organized in poor settlements, regardless of the registration

  • Free internet access should be provided for people living in disadvantaged settlements

  • Immediate income replacement benefits should be provided to families in need

  • It must be ensured that medicines and vitamins reach these settlements at affordable prices

  • Free catering should be extended

  • The employment of people who lost their jobs should be supported

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