Roma right to health – a distant prospect

Alphia Abdikeeva, CIDH Pro Igual

Roma health status across Europe is consistently worse than that of the majority population or even of most other ethnic groups. There is limited official data on the matter, but even scarce information that is available supports this conclusion. Infant mortality rates for Roma children are up to 4 times higher that the national averages, and Roma life expectancy is up to 10 years less than for the majority. See, for instance, a UNDP vulnerability study, and more recent surveys are also available.

Against this background it is perplexing why during health surveys so many Roma respondents estimate their health to be ´good´ or at minimum ´tolerable.´ The most logical explanation is that Roma in their majority may be simply not aware that health is more than not being terminally ill and that they have a very real, albeit unfulfilled, right to pretend to the highest attainable standard of health, with all it entails: equitable access to decent health care, including preventive care, and a host of patients´rights.

But improving Roma health indicators will take more than easing their access to cheaper and more medication, which is one concern that Roma patients most commonly raise. Medication seems like an easy solution, ridding them from the hassle, expense and humiliation of having to see a doctor. Hassle, because many do not have necessary papers or insurance; expense, because with or without insurance there is still something left to pay, if not official participation then a bribe; and humiliation, because many experience hostile attitudes from the medical personnel for a sheer reason of being Roma.

However, indicators such as high infant mortality and low life expectancy are not just about health, they are also about quality of life. Or, in case of many Roma, absence of any quality. These indicators suggest that prenatal healthcare is not adequate; that women´s health and rights are neglected; that children´s nutrition and safety are lacking. This brings about the whole issue of Roma living conditions: very often in slums, without access to clean water and sanitation, without accessible roads and very far from any health centers.

Underlying those living conditions is poverty, rooted in centuries of discrimination and exclusion. Tackling Roma health necessarily requires overhauling extremely precarious infrastructure many Roma are living in. Until then, good health for many Roma will remain but a distant prospect.