„By now, no one can give even a piece of bread”

József Radics used to drive a taxi in Budapest but since the beginning of March he has been touring the country with his car, wearing a mask, gloves and equipped with a liter of hand sanitizer. He is delivering food aid to the poorest people and in the evenings, he does his own Facebook broadcasts, followed by hundreds of people. “I am just coming from Vécs, Heves county, where the children haven’t eaten for two and a half days. There is a family in Tápióság where there are eight small children who also haven’t eaten for two days,” Radics said in early April after one of his tours.

Radics is a Roma activist, but he says this epidemic crisis is not affecting only the Roma minority: “Gypsy or non-gypsy, I experience the same fear, anger, despair every day, wherever I go.”

A few months ago, Radics founded an organization called the National Roma Civil Council, which was supposed to promote Roma cultural programs. However, it was not even registered when the coronavirus arrived, and the organization quickly transformed into a nationwide donation delivery service. Today, it is one of the most active relief networks that, despite the threat of an epidemic, is trying to alleviate the situation of the poorest people in Hungary. From March to mid-April, their volunteers visited more than 300 villages and brought non-perishable food, home-made masks and firewood to about 3,000 families.

However, many more people need help. Estimates of the number of people living in deep poverty in Hungary range from 100,000 to millions, and even one of the largest European Union aid programs in recent years, with a budget of tens of billions of forints, has been able to help only a few tens of thousands of those in need with food parcels on a monthly basis.

József Radics, founder of National Roma Civil Council sorting donations / Source: ORCT Facebook

The coronavirus epidemic makes the situation of the poorest families even more severe. While there have not been outbreaks in the rural communities, hunger is already a problem, according to interviews with aid organizations representatives and people living in poor areas.

People living in deep poverty have so far typically made a living from temporary jobs and state-organized public work programs. Many of these jobs disappeared in recent weeks due to the epidemic, and families have run out of money altogether. According to József Radics, while in the past people traded basic products like salt and flour among each other, that doesn’t work anymore.

“They’ve gotten to the point where no one has almost anything anymore. And we are only at the beginning,”

said Radics, who has been working with Roma aid organizations for decades.

Large charity organizations also fear that the living conditions of masses will deteriorate soon. Although donations have skyrocketed in recent weeks, the number of people seeking help has increased even more. In the meantime, the distribution of donations has become much more difficult: aid organizations typically had worked with elderly volunteers who are now quarantined; some offices had to be closed; and there were villages where mayors would not allow food distributions because of the fear that the aid workers would bring infection with them.

So far, the government has not introduced specific measures to help families in crisis. At the same time, according to Máriusz Révész, a member of parliament from the governing Fidesz party, who was appointed to coordinate a “national collection and delivery” of donations, said that the national cooperation is unprecedented: companies and individuals offered HUF 240 million (EUR 674 thousand) in monetary donations and high-value material donations. However, Révész also noted that government assistance will definitely be needed to handle the situation.

Mayors do not always know what they are supposed to do

In many cases, village mayors are not particularly sure what they are supposed to do about families in crisis, according to activists and people living in poverty interviewed by Direkt36. The Hungarian government has not issued guidelines so far to coordinate the work of municipalities concerning their poorest inhabitants. The only clearly given task for the mayors is to take care of the elderly who must stay indoors during lockdown.

Without clear guidelines, municipalities have had different responses to the emergency. Many of the municipalities are closed, phones are scarcely answered, mayors work from home. But there also are examples of active and helpful approaches.

In some villages the distribution of food parcels stopped. The packages, paid for by a European Union program, had been handed out on a monthly basis to extremely poor families with small children. One of the villages where the program was running was Tápiószele of Pest county, where the distribution of food packages was stopped on March 18 by the government body responsible for the program due to the risk of spreading the epidemic. State employees recollected the packages and brought them back to the distribution center. However, in early April, they changed their minds: in case municipalities undertook the task of distribution, they could get their packages back.

Food parcels distributed by National Roma Civil Council / Source: ORCT Facebook

Thus, Tápiószele administrative workers delivered the food parcels to almost 40 families involved in the program. But according to Imre Dobos, mayor of Tápiószele, none of the neighboring villages undertook the task, possibly because of fear of the virus. Families who had lived on little money will be in a big trouble from May on, said Dobos. Many of them made their living of odd jobs, but lost their work in April, which means they will run out of savings in May, he added. The municipality intends to provide monthly food parcels for the 150 poorest families and also plans to organize the daily supply of cooked lunch for people in need.

In Kömlő of Heves county the mayor, Tamás Turó, organized the community to sew face masks and used his own money to pay for 2400 kg of chicken meat which was distributed among the villagers. Besides, the village opened a crisis fund, the first donors being the local councilmen donating their one-month salary and the mayor giving HUF 500,000 (EUR 1400). This was spent on food parcels. Turó goes live on Facebook regularly, informing the villagers of steps made in order to avoid the spread of the virus and to ease the burdens on the poor.

But there are places where information does not spread so well, and help does not come so easily.

In Emőd, Borsod county, for example, local Roma minority leader Erzsébet Horváth is worried about the many poor families, who, she says, are in need of non-perishable food and disinfectants. Local shops have almost completely run out of the latter. Horváth advises the Roma to rub their hands in lukewarm, soapy water for minutes.

However, even this is not an easy task for the poorest families. József Radics of the National Roma Civil Council gives an example. During his visits to villages, besides bringing food for the poorest, he also tells everyone that they can do a lot against the virus by washing their hands regularly. But sometimes the answer to this advice is, “OK we get it, but can you lend a soap so that we can wash our hands?” This increases the risk of infection as well as the fact that often multiple generations live together in tiny, one- or two-bedroom houses without a proper bathroom or a kitchen. Many houses lack running water, forcing people to bring water regularly in buckets from wells. A number of family members drink directly from the bucket, using often the same plastic cups. This is highly dangerous in a pandemic, so Erzsébet Horváth advises everyone to drink the well water from their own bottle.

Horváth has no other means than giving advices. She turned to the local mayor for help, but he was not cooperative, she said.

The mayor, Tibor Fekete, said that he did not consider distribution of food parcels or disinfectants, the latter because he thought it was difficult to determine which type was effective. So far, there has been no indication that many more people would require meals than before, he said, speaking with Direkt36. However, lunch provided by the municipality costs HUF 617 daily (EUR 1.7). The ones who cannot pay for it can ask for ad hoc aid, but those in need “have known about this for years,” he said.

According to Fekete, locally sewn masks were distributed in Emőd, some were given to community employed kitchen maids. Community workers working outside would get one in case it is needed, he added. When asked about informing the poorest about the fight against the virus, he said posters were placed in several points of the small town.

The mayor said that the best way to help the poor would be the expansion of the state-run community employment program. But even for this, the workers are required to be disciplined, he said. Besides, the mayor would gladly see clear guidelines provided by the government, accompanied by, if possible, financial resources. “I am open to finding a solution together” with local minority leaders, he added.

Kids wandering around the streets

There are villages where the municipality is focused on forcing people to follow the rules of lockdown. The municipality of Taktaszada in Borsod county, for example, withdraws municipal social assistance from the elderly who do not stay at home, and the same applies to families where schoolchildren leave their homes during the day. In Hencida, Hajdú-Bihar county, the mayor issued a call that “the police are ordered to take children wandering around the streets home during school hours and to report the case to child welfare service. If this happens, it is possible that family allowance be withdrawn due to absence from education.”

Direkt36 could not reach the mayor of Hencida to ask if that has happened to any family already. But losing the monthly family allowance (its amount being around HUF 12-16,000 (EUR 33-44) per child) can be a serious cut for the poorest, according to Beáta Varga from Hencida. The mother of one always plans in advance how she would spend every forint of the allowance.

Her husband is a community worker at the municipality, but half of his salary automatically goes to a debt-collector firm because of an old loan. Because of this, their monthly income is only HUF 25-28 thousand (EUR 70-78). The woman is unemployed so the family allowance of her 12-year-old daughter is the only additional income they can count on. “If we pay our bills, which is 14,000 forints, there is only 10,000-something left from my husband’s salary. Today, we went to Berettyóújfalu to do some shopping. We bought chicken legs, tailbones, sugar, flour, oil and only 2,000-something is left. The family allowance arrives on Monday, I will buy some pasta and flour and a few other things and that is how we start a month,” she explained.

Anikó Kiss, founder of the aid organization Social Delivery Movement (Szocsoma), receives dozens of calls for help every day. The number has doubled or even tripled since the beginning of lockdown. Most of the people calling need food or disinfectant products. Szocsoma was, in the first place, founded to “awaken the sense of responsibility in the majority society”, but the movement also tries to help segregated Roma communities. “There are places where nobody cares about them, strikingly abandoned communities. There is a village called Szerep, that a Roma minority leader from another village visited it recently. She also struggles to make a living but gave a few thousand forints of her own to the locals, and then left, crying.

Many mayors consider the Roma as survivors, they think they will get on somehow. But now, they cannot.”

Charity needs to be re-thought

To make matters worse, the major charity organizations that have played a key role in food distribution also face difficulties. There is a downloadable poster on the website of the Hungarian Malteser Aid Agency that informs about a donation freeze due to coronavirus restrictions. According to the text, “we are forced to halt all acceptance and distribution of donations to an uncertain amount of time.” The spokesperson of the aid service, Tamás Romhányi said that they currently cannot accept material donations from individuals, only companies may donate food and other items.

There are a lot of elderly among their 3,000 volunteers, who must stay at home now, he added. This means that half or two-thirds of their 130 distribution sites had to close down. These used to be places where people in need could turn for aid. Despite all this, Romhányi said, charity work has not stopped. Malteser workers keep in touch with poor families they had helped before. In the countryside, the Agency’s cars regularly take to the streets and deliver donations, while keeping minimal contact. However, their help does not reach every place affected: the Aid Agency only operates in around 300 settlements. Malteser staff now fears that people who have already begun to recover from poverty with their support, may slip back into the pit, Romhányi added.

“There is a great transformation in relief work right now. We simply don’t have a template for what is happening,” said Attila Szilágyi, communications director of Hungarian Baptist Aid, to Direkt36. The situation is very serious, he said. “Masses will soon crumble existentially, and the current amount of private donations will not be enough to deal with the situation,” he said. Over the past three weeks, higher-than-average sums have flowed into the Aid, meaning there has been an increased willingness to donate. This means more than HUF 10 million (EUR 28.000) in three weeks, but the demand has also increased so much that this sum was spent in two weeks. The number of calls for help has multiplied and is growing.

“There is no one in Hungary who can tell accurately how much would be needed, but the incoming volume is far from enough,”

said Szilágyi. Food parcels may help ease problems momentarily, but it is more like “fighting the fire,” he added.

Many in the staff of the Hungarian Baptist Aid belong to the risk group of the virus due to old age or health conditions, but despite all that, the Aid maintains their services. The organization continues to distribute masks and disinfectants, and, among others, operate public kitchens. About 1,500 servings of meal are distributed daily. An increasing part of this is given out in Budapest because the demand is constantly growing in the capital while several villages (probably in fear of groupings at the sites of food distribution) have refused the service. Only Baranya county is an exception. From the region, a dozen mayors indicated that “in this situation we are in dire need of a bowl of hot food a day.” Thus, Baptist Aid rushes to license so-called folk kitchens. Meanwhile, a hybrid solution has emerged in several villages: Baptists deliver the food and local municipality staff distributes it.

By setting up a so-called “donation and volunteering coordination task-force” led by Fidesz-politician Máriusz Révész, the government so far has had this one measure that aims to contribute to helping the poorest people. The taskforce collects and distributes donations in cooperation with large charity agencies. Révész confirmed to Direkt36 that it was an explicit request of the charities that they currently do not want to accept non-perishable food items from individual donors due to the risk of infection, however, citizens can help by transferring money to them.

Révész has no insight into whether the government prepares a program specifically to aid the poorest, but he said, answering Direkt36’s question: there was feedback from several places that people living in deep poverty were in urgent need of help. According to the politician, most of the donations collected by the taskforce (more than HUF 240 million (EUR 672.000) so far in money transfer and material donations worth even more, such as vitamins worth HUF 60 million and 1000 computers offered by the Docler Group) will be offered to help this purpose.

According to Révész, this shows an outstanding cooperation of Hungarians in times of this emergency. However, when asked by Direkt36, he stated that even though there have already been political decisions so far, the government will definitely have to aid the people in need.

Direkt36 also contacted the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM), the Home Office (BM) and the National Humanitarian Coordination Council (headed by state secretary Miklós Soltész), these being government bodies responsible for helping people living in poverty. They did not respond to our questions.

An activist of National Roma Civil Council handing out food parcels / Source: ORCT Facebook

Tense situations

Threatening hunger and short of accurate information can easily create tensions. In Egerbakta, Heves county, for example, a number of angry people gathered in order to hold the minority representative and the mayor accountable for their supposed inaction.

Direkt36 was told about the incident by Gáspár Szabó, local activist of National Roma Civil Council, and a local elderly woman, both claiming to be witnesses of the events. According to them, the conflict stemmed from the fact that odd jobs have disappeared almost everywhere in the area in recent weeks. The old woman’s granddaughter also lost her job: she worked in a bakery but was told not to go back from her leave because people had to be fired. “Here nobody among the Roma have firewood or food, we have almost nothing,” she said. A situation like this is not uncommon but something is different now:

“Everyone would go to everyone to ask [for flour] to be able to knead at least a little bodag [simple bread]. But now no one can give a piece of bread.”

As hunger intensified, despair grew among the people and they felt left alone. In addition, there was fake news spreading countrywide on Facebook that local minority leaders would provide non-perishable food parcels worth 5,000 forints and disinfectants for 3,000 forints per capita. That much would have been enough for many families to breathe in a sigh of relief, but the news was fake. Minority representatives are not allowed by law to spend their budgets for charity purposes.

As a result of all these factors, in the beginning of April a group of angry men formed in Egerbakta. “A whole bunch of people were roaring here,” said the elderly woman, adding that their destination would have been the local Roma minority leader’s house and the mayor’s office. But Gáspár Szabó and the woman, who is respected in the community due to her old age, intervened. “We persuaded the people to be patient.” They managed to reach the president of the National Roma Self-Government (ORÖ), János Agócs via the phone, put him on speaker and with his help, they could calm the group down. (Agócs did not want to comment to Direkt36.)

According to the local minority representative, Géza Barkóczi, the situation escalated partly due to false information spreading on Facebook, and like in Egerbakta, tensions developed in many settlements. Barkóczi said that that he and the mayor of Egerbakta think in the long term, so they organized the so-called folk kitchen for the poorest inhabitants and along with daily meals from schools and kindergartens, food would be delivered to families’ doors. This means a portion of hot food a day for all those in need, who he thinks may be about 400 in Egerbakta. He added that the tension “was not so great after all” and “we fixed the situation with comprehensible communication and accurate information” so people have remained calm since then.

Tibor Varga, mayor of Egerbakta did not respond to Direkt36’s phone calls and text messages.

  • Zsuzsanna Wirth

    Zsuzsanna started her journalistic carreer at Origo, where she spent ten years at the news desk, covering and investigating various political and social issues as well as corruption and organized crime. She worked for the Hungarian editions of Forbes and Marie Claire. She has been workign at Direkt36 as a journalist since 2016, and as an editor since 2022. In 2022, she studied OSINT techniques as an OCCRP Research Fellow. She was awarded the Prize for Quality Journalism three times. In 2023, she received the László Szente-Prize, and together with Kamilla Marton she also won the Transparency-Soma award for her series of articles exposing the hidden situation of hospital-acquired infections. She teaches journalism at ELTE’s media department.