Imagine the European Union, the world’s most powerful economy, with all its technology and innovation in place. And imagine that there is a huge group of people, including young children, older adults or people with disabilities that do not have access to running water. And imagine they mostly belong to one ethnic group.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organized a public hearing on Roma health in Brussels last Monday. I attended with Maria Evgenieva, Clinical Leader of home visiting programs with the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA).
Maria reported on the situation in the country: “Infant mortality of Roma children compared to their non-Roma peers is still unacceptably high, despite the efforts done in the past years to reduce it”, she said.
Alarmingly, 30% of Roma in the EU live in households with no tap water, and only half of young Roma children attend early childhood education – this is often less than half the proportion of children of their age from the general population in the same country (EU Fundamental Rights Agency).
The hearing’s title was “Roma’s health situation and their access to healthcare: assessing women’s and children’s health”.
TSA coordinates the REYN National Network Bulgaria. Maria presented their program Nurse Family Partnership, which brings health services to Romani pregnant women, mothers and children. People who often don’t have access to services because they are unable to pay for medicines and health checkups or because they aren’t informed well enough.
The program is active in many countries. What is remarkable about it is that better health (improved prenatal health and pregnancy outcomes) also leads to improved school readiness, fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and decreased likelihood of involvement in criminal activities up to 15 years of age.
Poverty and health in the EU
The lack of access to health services, or services determining health (e.g. access to water) indeed plays a significant role and poverty or low socio-economic status often go hand in hand with bad health. However, we need to keep in mind that higher income does not automatically lead to better health.
The Nurturing Care Framework, the guiding document for healthy development of young children, identifies several major risk factors for suboptimal development, and poverty is only one of them. The other ones are: malnutrition, insecurity, gender inequities, violence, environmental toxins, and caregivers’ mental health.
Just reading through the identified risk factors, we can easily see that there are multiple factors that contribute to health. The key here is that health is a value on its own and is a concept much broader than just healthcare.
We have witnessed multiple projects and initiatives aiming to improve the situation of Roma. Some were successful, some not. The key to long-term improvements is in the shared values behind the motivations.
We strive for a European Union where people would consider unacceptable that the life expectancy of members of one ethnic group could be ten years shorter. Without blaming anyone, we need to create a shared vision of equal access to health for all and of the right of every child to develop their full potential.