Bucharest, April 6, 2020: By the end of 2019, we had all read about the situation in Wuhan. At that point, everything still seemed distant enough that it wouldn’t reach Romania. But when Covid-19 arrived in Italy, I realized that the problem was not far away. In my country, worries really started in February: a young man tested positive after coming into contact with an Italian who had visited his wife’s relatives in southern Romania. This case and the subsequent epidemiologic investigation filled the news for several days. Since then, confirmed cases have multiplied alongside society’s anxiety levels. Restrictions to ensure social distancing and progressive lockdown measures have been imposed, although the political elites’ immediate goals were not consistent with the growing pandemic. The liberals pushed for pre-term elections while the social democrats, who are the biggest party in Parliament, wanted to maintain the status quo in order to regain some of the popularity they had lost after last year’s European Parliament and presidential elections. But COVID-19 changed everyone’s plans. At this moment, Romania has reached stage four of the virus transmission.
More than anything, the spread of COVID-19 intersects with our present interconnectedness and global mobility, a flow of people and goods from which no one can be isolated or protected. Prior to this, the dangers that hit Romania came solely from the outside, from foreigners—or at least this is what most of our history books teach us. This ‘besieged fortress complex’ is deeply rooted in our historical imagination. Yet COVID-19 has a fuzzy identity that has managed to reverse this pattern. There are no foreigners or enemies to blame. This time, the problem was brought by Romanians themselves. Over the past ten years, almost four million people have left the country in search of a better life. Many migrated to Western European countries, especially Italy and Spain. When the pandemic reached Europe, returning home felt like a safe harbour for many. Yet in one statement, the new ministry of health, referring to the Romanian diaspora coming back to the country, observed: “they fled death, but they can bring death to us.” There’s not much empathy there, though…
COVID-19 is hard to grasp, both in pathogeny and genealogy. But everyone seems to have gleaned information that others might not have, especially from social media. We live in a polyphonic social space where disinformation and fear spread even more rapidly than the disease. What’s more, I have the feeling that many want COVID-19 to be something that it is not. Authorities say it is a serious issue and we should stay at home to prevent its spread; Romania is three weeks behind Italy in terms of the pandemic evolution and we should be careful not to recreate the Italian scenario here. But others maintain that all this is simply the flu and can be treated with vitamin C, hot tea or garlic. I remember a conspiracy hoax that made the rounds about a decade ago, claiming that a ‘global occult group’ was plotting to make garlic disappear, because the Earth’s population had gotten too large. The mantra of overpopulation resurfaces when fear and uncertainty arise.
But fear is always mixed with hope. One day in March the most read article in Romania, according to Google’s metrics, was “The pill that can stop the flu in one day”. My compatriots read this piece on the Internet feverishly, not stopping to notice that it was published in 2018. And this was not the only issue. I am a historian, always on the lookout for the source of any information. In this case it was the Financial Times, a reliable source. But the Romanian translation was fully misleading. The original title was “Japan’s new drug: One pill may stop the flu in just one day.” How it was rendered in Romanian presented a possibility as a certitude.
All joking aside, this pandemic is a serious issue and the core question is whether the Romanian healthcare system will be able to cope with it. So far, there are not many encouraging signs. The number of those infected and deaths increases every day, while hundreds of doctors and nurses have been contaminated amid a lack of protective equipment, breach of medical protocols and poor management. The most dramatic case is at the Suceava county hospital, where most of the medical personnel got infected. In many other public hospitals across Romania doctors and nurses have handed in their resignations over the prevailing conditions and fears that their lives are in danger.
Testing to identify those infected with COVID-19 is another issue. There were not many tests available at the start, but this shortcoming has been rectified. A huge number of test kits were recently brought from South Korea. In this context, the Minister of Health publicly announced that all of Bucharest’s population will be tested for COVID-19 within a rather short time frame. This is unprecedented for a city with almost two million inhabitants. But hours after making this announcement, the health minister resigned. It seems he was asked to step down. I don’t know if his unsuccessful attempt to set a world record for COVID-19 testing is the only reason for his departure. Still, with or without this political move, the broad situation of the healthcare system remains unchanged: it is really sick, the result of a lack of investment, widespread corruption, and staff shortages. According to Eurostat, Romania spends less on its medical system than any other EU country.
Apart from all these facets of the current situation, real life unfolds at the micro-level, mostly in the stories we tell and hear. For better or worse, this pandemic has given us time for all the things we might have neglected or forgotten, for self-analysis and for reflection. In my case, together with my family, I am trying to make the best of the days spent at home: reading, listening to music, or playing. In December, when my daughter got an electric piano from Santa, I thought that I might finally get the chance to realize my dream of learning to play this great instrument. Still, until COVID-19 burst into our lives, I never found enough time for it. Now I can only hope that I don’t get stuck playing piano for too long.
Eugen Stanco is Executive Director at Eurocentrica in Bucharest. In 2016 and 2019 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.