Position Statement No. 15: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on selected minority groups in Poland

People with disabilities, care home residents, refugees, migrants, and those experiencing homelessness account for a total of over 20% of Polish society. The impact of the COVD-19 pandemic on these groups will last significantly longer than the epidemic risk itself. For this reason, their problems should be urgently addressed by decision makers. This issue is discussed in Position Statement 15 of the Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS).

Position Statement 15: Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on selected minority groups in Poland

COVID-19 has affected the whole of society. However, the effects of the pandemic are not the same for everyone. For example, people with disabilities, especially care home residents, refugees, migrants, and finally those experiencing homelessness encounter additional difficulties during the pandemic. In addition to being excluded from the mainstream of public life, these people face problems that often escape the attention of decision makers and attract little interest from the media and the public. Despite being typically treated as minorities, such people account for a total of over 20% of Polish society, forming an integral part thereof. Their situation, which was already difficult in the normal times, became even more acute during the pandemic. The pandemic has not only laid bare all the weaknesses of the system of support for such individuals, but also created completely new problems. By looking at the problems experienced by such people, we can see more clearly the problems affecting the whole of society ¬– from the sidelines, we can sometimes see more, also the things that are by no means “marginal” (Kapralski, S., 2008).

We still lack systematic research showing, in a comprehensive way, the situation of such people during the pandemic. In this position statement, we refer mainly to qualitative data that we have collected by interviewing experts familiar with the situation of each of these groups. In order to maintain at least some level of methodological standardization in our analysis, we asked all experts four fundamental questions (about the size of each group, about the impact that the pandemic has on their members, about their lives during the pandemic, and about the demands that they have in connection with the pandemic). Obviously, however, the interviews were not limited to those issues. We do not claim to present a full picture of the impact of the pandemic on these communities, but we do want to draw public attention their problems and highlight the need to work out measures that will counter the long-term adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these communities.

Obviously, our analysis does not cover all the minority groups that have been affected by the pandemic. When selecting them, we were guided by three crucial criteria. We wanted to focus first of all on large and easily recognizable groups and secondly on those whose problems are similar enough to be addressed jointly. Thirdly, we selected groups that also have specific problems requiring distinct individual solutions, and the failure to notice such issues condemns these groups to marginalization and exclusion. As a result of applying these three criteria, we focused on analyzing the situation of the following groups.

People with disabilities 

There are several reasons why the pandemic has had a particularly severe impact on this group. First of all, the issuance of decisions on disability and inability to work was temporarily halted, which translated into delays in the payment of welfare benefits. Secondly, the operations of rehabilitation and care facilities was suspended. Some people, including many of those who live in public nursing homes, have not left their homes for over a year. Very few of them can continue to work remotely, but they have no family or social contacts, nor do they have ongoing access to rehabilitation and rehabilitation holidays, which are essential for their health. People with intellectual disabilities and their families or caregivers are affected especially severely by this confinement within the four walls of their homes. Every day of such deprivation of stimuli and opportunities for therapy means that individuals with intellectual disabilities are losing the life skills that they have spent years acquiring. The situation is further worsened by the fact that such people often do not understand the dangers posed by the epidemic or the related safety measures. Other problems are experienced by the deaf, who cannot benefit from medical consultations over the telephone, and their social contacts are additionally limited by the fact that they cannot lip-read through masks, which exacerbates their incomprehension and confusion. Thirdly, information exclusion has proved particularly problematic for people with disabilities, which often results from the absence of communication tools (such as messages intended for the deaf) that would allow them not only to engage in social interactions but also to work and learn remotely.

The European Disability Strategy 2010–2020  promotes the transition from institutional to community-based care. If properly implemented, especially during the pandemic, this approach would offer people with disabilities an opportunity to become fully included in public life and would guarantee respect for their fundamental rights. In addition, deinstitutionalization would eliminate most of the problems that people with disabilities are grappling with during the pandemic. As has been the case with the current pandemic, however, smaller centers and public-benefit organizations might be then left without guidelines and support from state institutions.

Refugees and migrants

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems faced by refugees and migrants in Poland and partially created new phenomena. However, systemic problems related to the lack of migration policy in Poland (the document regulating the national strategy in this respect was repealed on 18 October 2016) have proved especially acute during the pandemic.
The most important problems faced by refugees and migrants in Poland during the pandemic were:

  • no access to the refugee procedure and the temporary closing of border crossing points,
  • protracted legalization procedures, which prevent such individuals from, for example, taking up legal employment,
  • the job market crisis, which meant that many foreigners had no means of subsistence, lost their places to live, and had no access to welfare benefits,
  • information exclusion, with no access to hardware, a lack of computer skills, and not speaking the language
  • no access to remote education for the children of foreigners, or difficulties in obtaining such access (a lack of computers, software, and hardware; a lack of network access; a lack of support; the language barrier making it difficult to understand messages; and a lack of ICT skills on the part of parents) and the related sense of marginalization, growing threats to the physical and mental development of such children and their integration into society,
  • a failure to adapt refugee centers to meet quarantine and isolation needs

An enormous role in countering the effects of the pandemic on the situation of refugees and migrants in Poland is played by NGOs. However, it is currently essential not only to support these organizations, but also to create systemic solutions focused on mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the situation of refugees and migrants.

People experiencing homelessness

People experiencing homelessness function in very different spaces, including homeless shelters, non-residential sites (vacant buildings, allotment gardens (działki), basements, trash dumps, and so on), and public spaces. In each of these spaces, the pandemic has created different difficulties and different risks. A great challenge is posed by efforts to ensure the continued operation of assistance centers in the conditions of the risk posed by the epidemic. Such centers are run almost exclusively by NGOs. In the first months of the pandemic, they were forced to operate without guidelines and budgets for epidemic prevention and control. Like other facilities mentioned above, shelters are not suited to the conditions of isolation, so providing assistance is risky both for those who use such facilities and for their staff.

Likewise, the pandemic has not been without influence over those among people experiencing homelessness who do not stay in shelters. Reduced mobility of people in cities meant that those who relied on handouts were deprived of subsistence means. In the first months of the pandemic, intervention facilities (soup kitchens and night shelters) were closed, and they have yet to return to operating at full capacity. Since soup kitchens and night shelters were temporarily closed, those staying in public spaces or non-residential areas were deprived of places to live and to eat. For many months, those employed at intervention facilities and social workers continued to help those in need without epidemic control and prevention support and despite the fact that they were not included in the National Vaccination Program.

The people and organizations that aid individuals experiencing homelessness are urging measures that chiefly involve:

  • drafting pandemic response guidelines for shelters and social workers,
  • providing medical services to social workers and their families (tests, vaccinations, medical assistance),
  • increasing the capacity of homeless shelters and adapting them to the needs of those who need care (disabled or ill individuals),
  • taking steps to counter information exclusion.

In light of the difficult situation in the job market, the scale of homelessness will presumably grow in coming years. Therefore, now is a good time to take action to support homeless shelters, the NGOs that aid people experiencing homelessness, and nursing homes.


The population affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Poland comprises many groups, including communities that remain on the periphery of Poland’s general policy towards the fight against the pandemic. These groups are grappling with common problems that make it difficult for them to face the risks associated with the pandemic. These are:

  1. limited access to information about the pandemic due to language or financial barriers,
  2. limited access to health care, including prevention and rehabilitation services,
  3. support facilities not suited to meet pandemic requirements (these include therapy centers, refugee centers, shelters for people experiencing homelessness, centers for those struggling with addiction, public nursing homes, child-care and education centers) and the absence of epidemic prevention and control procedures and financial resources to implement the requirements imposed over time in response to the epidemic,
  4. limited financial support received by NGOs that aid such people,
  5. no adequate educational support for children from such groups,
  6. rising unemployment and poverty.

In addition to the minority groups mentioned here, there are other people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. These include those struggling with drug addiction, patients in various types of therapy centers, residents of public nursing homes, child care centers, and education centers, people experiencing domestic violence, and non-heteronormative individuals.
The pandemic has hindered the operations of the facilities that aid individuals from these groups. The better these facilities are prepared to provide their services during the pandemic, the more limited the real, psychological, and health-related costs will be for both for those who benefit from such services and for those who work in such centers. In the case of non-heteronormative individuals, another problem is posed by the need to stay in what is often a hostile family environment and by exposure to violence. In addition, such people have been targets of political attacks and hate speech during the pandemic, which increased their level of stress and gave rise to a range of psychological problems.

A more detailed discussion of each of these groups and their problems goes beyond the scope of this position statement. However, we feel that the impact of the pandemic on these communities will last significantly longer than the epidemic risk itself. For this reason, their problems should be urgently addressed by decision makers.

It is already clear that:

  • The response to additional difficulties created by the pandemic should involve helping local governments to implement measures that support the groups of citizens that are affected by the pandemic to the greatest extent.
  • Involving NGOs and volunteers is crucially important for the mitigation of the effects of the pandemic and the exclusion of people from minority groups. Hence, it is necessary to support their activities with funding for epidemic prevention and control investments (such as adapting facilities to quarantine requirements), tests as well as support and protection of social workers (including social “streetworkers”)
  • Education is needed, and so are care educational tools adapted to people with special needs (educational materials available in different languages and support for teachers who provide remote education to students with special needs).
  • Work needs to be done to counter the information and digital exclusion of people from minority groups.
  • It is crucial to support those who have been particularly severely affected by the pandemic in the context of mental health risks.

Social distancing poses a greater risk for minority groups, because their lives and functioning are heavily dependent on frequent and close interpersonal contacts. If they are unable or do not know how to observe restrictions and limitations for various reasons, they turn into easy targets for SARS-CoV-2.
Let us remember that each of us will be fully safe from the COVID-19 threat only when all of us are safe.

We are thankful to the experts from the Office of the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights for their materials and contribution to this position statement: Kamila Dołowska, Jolanta Nowakowska, Joanna Subko, and Monika Wiszyńska. We are also thankful to Tomasz Przybyszewski of the Integration Foundation, Piotr Bystrianin of the Rescue Foundation, Maria Złonkiewicz of the Polish Hospitality Foundation, Janina Ochojska of the Polish Humanitarian Action, Adriana Porowska of the “Camillian Mission” Association, Karol Grygoruk of the Foundation “Heart of the City,” Magdalena Ankiersztejn-Bartczak of the Social Education Foundation, Artur Malczewski of the National Bureau of Drug Prevention, and Paweł Moczydłowski.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary.

Other members of the team are:

  • Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
  • Prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
  • Prof. Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
  • Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
  • Dr. Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
  • Dr. Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
  • Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology)
  • Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)

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