Slovakia is to deploy the army to prevent a potential Covid-19 infection spreading in and out of its Roma settlements.
The government has launched mass testing and intends possible lockdowns of whole communities, as the epidemic is likely to grow much faster in localities with poor hygienic conditions.
“It is by no means a demonstration of power,” maintained Igor Matovic, the Slovak prime minister on Wednesday (1 April).
“We just want to make use of doctors in uniform to start fast testing in the settlements without further overloading the regular health system.”
“It is necessary for protecting people living in these settlements and also all the others who do not live there,” Matovic added.
The move comes just days after a Roma village with 80 inhabitants near #Gelnica, in eastern Slovakia, was locked down as a young man at risk of infection - who had just returned from the UK - did not keep to the 14-day obligatory quarantine and instead travelled around.
The man eventually tested negative but the case sparked general concern over possible consequences of virus spreading within and out of the marginalised Roma communities.
Some 1,500 inhabitants from 33 Roma settlements recently returned from countries which had the outbreak of coronavirus and did not stay in the state facilities put aside for quarantine, according to Slovak officials.
People in these locations will be tested by army doctors starting this Friday (3 April) and the authorities will then decide on further measures – including lockdowns of whole communities under the army’s control, if needed.
Government experts suggest that the speed of the virus spread in places of poor hygienic standards like the Roma settlements, mainly in eastern Slovakia, could mean it reaches 20 new cases for every infected person.
“We still have some 30,000 people with no access to water,” Peter Pollak, the Slovak Roma MEP of Matovic´s OLaNO [Ordinary People] party, currently taking part in the government crisis team, said at a press conference.
Some people will worry about the prospect of army involved, Marcel Šaňa, Roma mayor of Kosice city´s Roma borough Lunik IX, told Euobserver.
“More soldiers or policemen around are always viewed with concern in the marginalised communities. But that is exactly our task – social workers, NGOs and municipalities must explain to them that it is aimed for their protection.”
“If we do not find out quickly how many people in the slums are infected, it will become a ticking bomb,” Peter Marko, general practitioner in Tatranska Lomnica, in eastern Slovakia, told EUobserver.
Marko has been involved in several health and research projects involving marginalised Roma communities and he argues that isolation of the infected would not be possible there and would spread fast.
“People in the settlements will probably be distrustful initially – just as they were when we were taking tiny samples of blood as part of research of hepatitis C infection and they accused me of using them for business. But they are concerned about corona virus so they will get to understand.”
Dr Marko also said that Romani communities react with strong emotion about the death and illness of their relatives - and the first instance of coronavirus-related victims might lead to “unpredictable wave of panic,” he told Euobserver.
Baptism of fire
The new anti-virus measures come just the second week in office of the new Slovak cabinet led by prime minister Matovic and his anti-corruption OLaNO party.
Days before the four-party ruling coalition was formed, the outgoing PM Peter Pellegrini, of the social democrat SMER-SD party, moved to close schools, churches, the majority of shopping centres and other public facilities in early March, immediately after the first virus infection cases in Slovakia were recorded.
While the first shut down was originally planned for two weeks, the new government extended it open-ended and predicted that the epidemic could culminate in mid-July in Slovakia, with somewhat milder consequences for the country´s health system as compared with other EU states.
As of 2 April, there were 426 positive cases and one victim of Covid-19 infection recorded in Slovakia.
The economic impact will be just as grave as in other parts of Europe however, experts warn.
Meanwhile, both economists and some politicians have openly criticised Matovic for his suggestion that Slovakia should undertake a total state lockdown for two to three weeks to stop the virus, similar to the Chinese Wuhan experiment.