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From the Field

#IStayCamp. Health Conditions, Food Deprivation and Solidarity Problems in the First Days of Lockdown in the Roma Villages of Rome

Activist research in formal settlements of emergency housing in Rome during the Covid‑19 lockdown reveals how such settlements struggle with public health concerns and access to food, among other deprivations, and underscores the need for emergency interventions.

On March 9, 2020, “in order to counteract and contain the spread of the Covid‑19 virus,” Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree implementing a complete lockdown aimed at “avoiding any movement of individuals.” [1] The government also recommended that stringent hygiene and sanitary measures be taken throughout the country. Our NGO, Associazione 21 Luglio (“July 21 Association”), began an applied research project aimed at understanding the impact of these measures in formal settlements in Rome, which are inhabited by families that generally define themselves—and are identified by the local authorities—as belonging to varied Roma communities. [2]

We selected five formal monoethnic settlements of special emergency housing (called “villages” by the Rome administration) within which, according to the census carried out by the Rome authorities in 2019, about 2,200 people live, including approximately 1,050 minors. Even if they were established by the city of Rome (see Appendix 1), they are not ordinary welfare shelters and they are characterized by poverty, poor housing, locations in hazardous areas, lack of standard utilities and green areas, and frequent eviction. They are officially known as “villages,” but usually called “camps.” The housing units in these villages are shipping containers. They are old and small (21 m²/226 sq. ft), and in many cases host up to seven people.

In compliance with the decree, we did not physically visit the settlements under study. We conducted telephone interviews with 24 people living in five villages (see Appendix 2): Via Cesare Lombroso (181 people of Bosnian nationality, including 82 minors), Via Luigi Candoni (838 people, including 409 minors), Via dei Gordiani (260 people, 89 minors), Castel Romano (542 people, including 282 minors), and Via di Salone (360 people, including 174 minors). [3]

The interviews took place between March 14 and March 17, 2020. This instant, remote methodology was made possible by the sustained contact with the Roma living in the villages and the trust built up over time. 21 Luglio’s researchers visit the Roma villages every six months to observe and analyze the structural and living conditions in the settlements through direct observation and interviews with the residents. [4] We identified several changes in the inhabitants’ living conditions as a result of the decree that were exacerbated by past and present housing and urban policies.

Mobility

After the publication of the decree, local police patrols intensified in the villages of Via Luigi Candoni and Via di Salone. Police officers on horseback are stationed the entrance of the settlements. In some cases, the inhabitants feel the weight of contradictory restrictions that regulate hours when they may exit and forbid the use of automobiles to leave (Via Luigi Candoni), while also remaining observant of distance recommendations that apply inside cars (Via di Salone). This last restriction makes it impossible for the driver to accompany other people who are not living together. Far from the urbanized part of the city, the Via di Salone village is more than three kilometers (two miles) from a grocery store, and the road to the store from the village has no sidewalks and no lighting. These factors prevent some people from leaving the village, forcing them, where possible, to delegate someone to purchase basic necessities.

In the village of Castel Romano, law enforcement action seems to have recently escalated:

“We have been told that we cannot go out more than once a day and they do not let us go out with the car to do our shopping. Often, it’s my wife who goes shopping on foot, so the policemen make less fuss. In the end we eat less and save more money” (D., male, 47, Romanian).

Health orientation and prevention

On January 31, the first two cases of Covid‑19 in Italy were confirmed in Rome. Since that date no health workers have visited these five villages to illustrate the hygiene and health measures planned by health authorities. There is effectively no public health campaign in these Roma villages.

In the Via di Salone village, a resident notes:

“No, no one has come to explain anything. We see what we have to do on television but we don’t even know if we’re doing it right” (H., female, 23, Bosnian).

However, some villages have social characteristics that balance this lack of public health outreach. In Via Cesare Lombroso, the smallest camp, the inhabitants are part of a single extended family, so trust is strong among the members about individual behavior. Parents recognize that their children are lucky because they can play outdoors with their cousins and siblings.

Conversely, in the welfare shelters for refugees in Rome, information sessions on Covid‑19 and on the measures to be taken have been planned, as well as the distribution of a booklet and handouts in different languages.

In Via Luigi Candoni, some families report that they have made masks, but they are only used outside. When they are outside they are scared of being contaminated. The village is perceived as protective and safer than the city. Even in Via dei Gordiani, from the testimonies collected, no masks are used inside the village.

“In the family we bought some gloves but we do not use them inside the camp. We would like to have some masks but we didn’t find them” (E., male, 38, Bosnian).

Some residents have resorted to making masks by cutting some fabric.

In spite of these resilient measures, the lack of infrastructure and services in the villages limits the efficacy of the struggle against the disease.

“Water has little pressure and is not always there. Some people wash themselves, some people can’t even wash themselves. Someone looked for masks in the pharmacy but they cost too much.” (S., female, 47, Bosnian, Via di Salone village)

In the Castel Romano village, there has been no access to running water for several months:

“Once every two or three days a tanker comes to give us two tanks of water per container. We haven’t had water for months; the municipality brings us water but it’s not enough. But how do you wash, cook, shower and drink with so little water? It’s a mess and nobody does anything about it—everybody knows how we are here and nobody does anything” (N., female, 23, Bosnian).

Economic conditions and food deprivation

The restrictions imposed by the lockdown decree also impact residents’ abilities to work. In some cases, when resources are scarce, residents share and help each other access basic needs, a function of the solidarity that exists between community members. In times of contagion, however, where the fear of physical contact dominates, this solidarity is at risk.

In Via Cesare Lombroso, economic conditions are dire following the decree:

“My wife goes out, but little. We don’t have much money for shopping. Before, I used to get paid by moving boxes, helping people move houses and offices move furniture, but now I don’t go out anymore” (G., male, 40, stateless).

From the tone of her voice, a mother of four children appears much more worried: “My husband used to do the flea market, you’re moving… now we’re staying put. Nobody’s working at the moment. We are also afraid to go into the crowds” (M., female, 35, Bosnian).

She reveals that her children are even more afraid after experiencing a serious act of racist violence: [5]

“It was February 11 and then February 29, always February. Someone threw Molotov cocktails on the shack with us sleeping inside. The school documents, the clothes… everything was burnt, with the children traumatized. Now that there’s this virus, my kids are even more terrified. But we don’t go anywhere, nobody visits us, not even health authorities, social services, the police force—nobody…”

In the Castel Romano village, some families support themselves from their Reddito di Cittadinanza (“Citizenship Income”). [6] For others, the situation is progressively deteriorating and some are forced to leave the village, walk long distances to look for food aid to feed their families.

“We used to earn with the market but now it’s closed. What are we going to do? To the families who now have nothing, we say ‘Call the associations and have them bring you something to eat’ … We are human beings, we are abandoned, and nobody helps us” (S., male, 55, Bosnian).

It is significant that village residents feel that an association, rather than a public authority, is accountable to them. And this is even more striking because most of the associations is not seen as trustworthy by the Roma (Boschetti and Vitale 2011), especially in Rome (Clough Marinaro and Daniele 2011; Maestri and Vitale 2017).

In Via di Salone, the majority of adults worked in sectors ranging from scrap collectors to cleaning cellars and basements, or the removals sector:

“I used to work in a removal firm and lived from day to day. Now I don’t have the daily money anymore and I don’t even have food” (R., male, 24, Italian).

For some women, the family economy is supported by alms.

“My husband is in jail and I can’t go out and beg since there is this virus because I have six children between two and twelve years old and I can’t leave them alone! But if I don’t beg, how am I supposed to live?” (S., female, 47, Bosnian).

Fragility of internal forms of mutual aid

In Via Luigi Candoni, after daily work disappeared, new forms of mutualistic solidarity developed among the Roma living there.

“I don’t work. I live with my son who doesn’t work. His wife gives alms but can no longer do it. But we help each other, those who can help, give money on loan or do the shopping for others. Today you help me, tomorrow I help you” (D., male, 47, Romanian).

Settlements are places where a different form of socialization takes place that values an insular community based on exchange, which has profound effects on the behavior, attitudes and skills of individuals (Cousin et al. 2020). But the mutual aid that develops in settlements should not be idealized, both because it sometimes leads to forms of dependence and serious exploitation (Clough Marinaro 2020), and because in the current situation of enormous scarcity of resources and deprivation of food, community solidarity is weakened. We know that solidarity in a community requires a form of common action and a virtuous relationship of exchange with external resources (Tosi and Vitale 2019). In Via dei Gordiani they tell us:

“All the elders in the camp lack the fundamental things. They live on alms and now they have nothing to live on. The elders, they have our community, but… now everyone thinks of themselves” (E., male, 38, Bosnian).

In Via di Salone before the outbreak of Covid‑19, family solidarity and exchange of primary goods and food allowed some households, particularly those in poverty, to overcome the most difficult moments. But today this circuit has been partly interrupted because of the fear that the passage of goods could expose people to the virus.

The elderly

Almost all the villages have reported cases of families or elderly people who may be unable to secure basic necessities. It is precisely the elderly, probably together with the children, who are paying the highest price. In Via dei Gordiani, a 65-year-old woman cannot leave her home because she has had numerous previous illnesses and has undergone liver surgery; she lives on subsistence and aid from charities. She has someone in the village who takes care of her, but lately the help has been reduced. She has many serious problems finding food every day and she is afraid of the pandemic and doesn’t know how to defend herself from the risk of contagion:

“We are abandoned, nobody tells us anything, we don’t know how to do it. All the elders in the camp are like that!” (D., female, 65, Bosnian).

Also, according to the testimonies collected in Via di Salone, the elderly are now marginalized within the marginalized villages:

“In the camp there are at least three old people living alone. They are always locked inside and we are also afraid to knock. But nobody even knows if they have food” (D., female, 43, Italian).

Children and education

There appears to be little awareness among villagers of the impact that the lockdown measures could have on children. The suspension of school activities and the impossibility of using technological tools essential to follow distance education places children of school age in a state of serious isolation in relation to their peers and teachers. Almost all of the interviewees informed us about the difficulties ensuring adequate nutrition for babies and children under three years of age.

The tensions in intergenerational relations, already difficult in these settlements (Daniele 2020) are palpable:

“I have a four-year-old girl and a three-year-old girl. I keep them close to me. They lock themselves in the container all day or a few hours in front of the door. They look like little dogs on a leash. Then the older kids don’t make it and you see them walking around in groups” (R., male, 28, Italian).

Policy recommendations

The slogan “I stay home,” repeated with emphasis by politicians, actors and sports figures in order to encourage the public to abide by the lockdown and prevent the spread of Covid‑19, is countered by a resident of Via di Salone:

“I stay at home? No. You stay at home. I’m staying in the camp. All the difference is here!” (A., male, 28, Italian, Via di Salone village, March 17, 2020).

This attitude could create even more segregating, marginalizing and ghettoizing conditions that affect almost 3,500 people in Rome’s Roma villages, not to mention what will happen in informal shantytowns in Rome as well as in the rest of Italy. This paper shows the importance of forms of applied research that can be carried out quickly by associations that have a daily relationship with the most vulnerable people, and develop capacities for solidarity action, deep listening, and “mediation” (combining dispute resolution mechanisms and forms of conviviality made by ties that bind; see Vitale 2019) to give direct voice to those directly concerned, even in pandemic emergency situations. Faced with the total absence of both public intervention by the municipality and health authorities and assistance from organizations previously present in the villages, food deprivation in households with young children has emerged as a priority among priorities. This applied research highlighted certain potential lines of conflict to be anticipated in order to carry out an emergency intervention (e.g. weakness of mutual aid relationships; competition for resources between families; strong persistence of stigma and racist prejudice against the Roma). We then designed a food aid program for three settlements (see Appendix 3).

We make the following urgent public policy recommendations [7]:

  • To map the conditions of greatest fragility within shantytowns and deprived public shelters with the aim of guaranteeing the distribution of basic necessities, particularly to minors and the elderly.
  • To guarantee adequate sanitary conditions within each individual shantytown, primarily by rapidly ensuring access to drinking water.
  • To ensure the presence of health workers and cultural mediators within the settlements who can carry out an information campaign aimed at illustrating the prevention measures recommended by health authorities and distributing personal protective equipment to inhabitants.
  • To strengthen and coordinate a network of volunteers (Roma included) in order to monitor the hygienic and health conditions of those living in the shantytowns and to orient people with symptoms.
  • To promote measures to safeguard the right to distance learning for students living in slums.
  • To coordinate support and food supply actions for the needy, especially for babies and toddlers aged 0 to 3 years.
  • To systematically listen to people living in shantytowns in order to understand their needs in a precise way, and to enhance and mobilize their skills, with precise reports that allow for concreteness and timeliness.
  • To prepare in advance an adequate and timely intervention plan in case of a Covid‑19 contagion within a village.

Bibliography

  • Boschetti, L. and Vitale, T. 2011. “« Les Roms ne sont pas encore prêts à se représenter eux-mêmes ! » Asymétries et tensions entre groupes Roms et associations « gadjé » à Milan”, in M. Berger, D. Cefaï, C. Gayet-Viaud (eds.), Du civil au politique. Ethnographies du vivre-ensemble, Brussels: PIE Peter Lang, pp. 403–429.
  • Clough Marinaro, I. 2020. “Informality and the Neo-Ghetto: Modulating Power Through Roma Camps”, in J. Flint and R. Powell (eds.), Class, Ethnicity and State in the Polarized Metropolis, Berlin: Springer, pp. 159–185.
  • Clough Marinaro, I. and Daniele, U. 2011. “Roma and humanitarianism in the Eternal City”, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, vol. 16, no. 5, pp. 621–636.
  • Clough Marinaro, I. and Daniele, U. 2014. “A failed Roma revolution: conflict, fragmentation and status quo maintenance in Rome”, Ethnicities, vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 775–792.
  • Cousin, G., Bianchi, F. and Vitale, T. 2020. “From Roma Autochthonous Homophily to Socialization and Community Building in the Parisian Metropolitan Region Shantytowns”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, first published online, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2020.1736993.
  • Daniele, U. 2020. “Informality and the governance of Roma housing through the lens of an NGO”, Cities, no. 96, article 102426.
  • Froio, C., Castelli Gattinara, P. and Vitale, ., 2019. “Davvero CasaPound dà voce al disagio delle periferie?”, La Rivista del Mulino. Available online at the following URL: www.rivistailmulino.it/news/newsitem/index/Item/News:NEWS_ITEM:4718.
  • Maestri, G. and Vitale, T. 2017. “A sociology of the camps’ persisting architecture.
Why did Rome not put an end to expensive ethnic housing policies?”, in M. Mendes, T. Sá and J. Cabral (eds.), Architecture and the Social Sciences. Inter- and Multidisciplinary Approaches between Society and Space, Berlin: Springer, pp. 197–218. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-53477-0_13.
  • Tosi, S. and Vitale, T. 2019. “De l’usage comparatif des « Studi di comunità »”, in J.‑Y. Authier, V. Baggioni, B. Cousin, Y. Fijalkow and L. Launay (eds.), D’une ville à l’autre. La comparaison internationale en sociologie urbaine, Paris: La Découverte, pp. 123–140.
  • Vitale, T. 2019. “Conflicts on Roma Settlements in Italian Cities: Normative Polarisation and Pragmatic Mediation”, Palaver, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 29–74. DOI: 10.1285/i22804250v8i1p29.

To quote this article :

Carlo Stasolla & Tommaso Vitale, « #IStayCamp. Health Conditions, Food Deprivation and Solidarity Problems in the First Days of Lockdown in the Roma Villages of Rome », Metropolitics, 28 April 2020. URL : https://metropolitics.org/IStayCamp-Health-Conditions-Food-Deprivation-and-Solidarity-Problems-in-the.html

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