By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Coronavirus infections are ravaging Hungary's 700,000-strong Roma community, according to personal accounts that suggest multiple deaths in single families are common in an unchecked outbreak fuelled by deep distrust of authorities.
Data on infections in the community is unavailable but interviews with about a dozen Roma, who often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions, reveal harrowing stories of suffering and death and of huge health-care challenges.
"Our people are falling like flies," said Aladar Horvath, a Roma rights advocate who travels widely among the community.
When asked by phone to describe the overall situation, he broke down sobbing and said he had learned an hour before that his 35-year-old nephew had died of COVID.
Another Roma, Zsanett Bito-Balogh, likened the outbreak in her town of Nagykallo in eastern Hungary to an explosion.
"It's like a bomb went off," she said.
"Just about every family got it...People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third."
Bito-Balogh, who herself recovered twice from COVID-19, said that at one point she had 12 family members in hospital. She said she had lost two uncles and her grandmother to the virus in the past month, and a neighbour lost both parents, a cousin and a uncle within weeks.
She says she is now rushing to organise in-person registration points for vaccines and plans to have the network up and running in a few weeks.
Despite the challenges in persuading many Roma to turn to health authorities for medical care and vaccinations, Roma leaders are urging the government to do more to intervene and tackle what Horvath describes as a humanitarian crisis.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said vaccinations would be rolled out to Roma but that the community needed to volunteer for their shots.
"Once we get to that point, the younger Roma should get in line," Gulyas said in answer to Reuters questions. The Roma community is predominantly young, which means their vaccinations are scheduled later than for older Hungarians.
The government's chief epidemiologist did not respond to requests for comment.
DECADES OF MISTRUST
Barely 9% of Roma want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey carried out at Hungary's University of Pecs in January but published here for the first time. It was conducted by Zsuzsanna Kiss, a Roma biologist and professor at Hungary's University of Pecs.
Kiss said the Roma have mistrusted doctors and governments for decades because of perceived discrimination.
However, gaining Roma trust is not the only challenge.
Hungary's 6,500 general practitioners are leading the vaccine roll-out, but 10% of small GP clinics are shut because there is no doctor to operate them, mostly in areas with high Roma populations, government data shows.
Although the government has deployed five "vaccination buses" that tour remote areas, people must first register for inoculations.
"The rise in cases (among the Roma) is clearly proportionate to vaccine rejection," said former Surgeon General Ferenc Falus.
"This more infectious virus reaches a population whose immune system has weakened greatly during the winter months. If they go without vaccines for long, it will definitely show in extra infections and fatalities among the Roma."
Hungary currently has the world's highest weekly per capita death toll, driven by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, despite a rapid vaccination rollout, data from Johns Hopkins University and the European Union indicates.
"We never trusted vaccines much," said Zoltan Varga, a young Roma also from Nagykallo.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Mark Heinrich)