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How Romania dealt with the corona crisis so far, as the country drops state of emergency for a state of alert

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Romania is leaving the two-month state of emergency imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic with no distinctly good or bad results, with a reasonable low number of reported infections and deaths and with its health system still operational. The country is the hardest hit among Eastern European countries, but fares way better than some Western countries.

  • Starting Friday, the state of emergency declared in mid-March is over and the country enters a state of alert, meaning some restrictions and compulsory measures are dropped, while others are still in effect. Romanians will no longer have to carry paper statements for their movement outside, some institutions, commercial outlets and service providers are now open. But schools remain shuttered until September, many other institutions and large commercial centers or hospitality outlets are still closed, and many restrictions remain on travelling between cities. Flights also remain suspended. People have to wear masks in indoor places, distance working is encouraged and firms must apply strict hygiene and prevention measures
  • President Klaus Iohannis has warned that while the state of emergency was over, the pandemic was not so should the situation worsen again, leading to higher pressure on hospitals, he would not be prevented from declaring the state of emergency again

Romania reported over 1,000 deaths (55 per million people) by Thursday evening, more than other countries in the region: 445 in Hungary (45 per million), 99 in Bulgaria (14 per million), 224 in Serbia (26 per million), 456 in Ukraine (10 per million ) and 883 in Poland (23 per million).

But these figures are incomparably lower than the tens of thousands reported in hard-hit countries such as Italy, Spain or Germany, where both absolute numbers and the number of deaths per million people are significantly higher. Germany reports 94 deaths per million people, Spain – 584 (10 times more than Romania) and Italy – 519 per million.

The Romanian health system has reported some major failures in fighting the epidemic, with chaotic and deadly situations in several places across the country. But overall it was spared the nightmare of overcrowded wards or of a ventilator crisis.

Still, in the first weeks of state of emergency, Romanian doctors faced an equipment crisis which saw them struggling for masks and special protection outfits, for testing machines and experts to use them.

Bitter taste also came with deserting medical personnel and system people, but the phenomenon was put out by a carrot and stick government intervention which tightened the resignation rules and promised financial perks for medical staff involved in Covid-19 efforts.

Even though Ludovic Orban’s government and President Iohannis are now boasting their quick reaction as compared to many Western countries, the truth is they were late in securing medical procurement and treated the virus as superficially as other European leaders long after it left China and was reported on places across Europe.

Just the week that led to the state of emergency announcement in mid-March, Romania did not have a full government, as the Liberal government had lost a censure motion in Parliament, while some politicians, President Iohannis prominently among them, were still dreaming of pushing for early elections.

Eventually, they behaved less irresponsibly than President Macron who was organising local elections as the epidemic was in full swing, or than Boris Johnson in the UK, who was postponing restrictions and experimenting with herd immunity on the people, leading to he himself becoming infected. Neither did they claim, like Trump alleged, that the virus was some fraud conceived by his enemies and that it was bound to disappear just like that.
Romanian officials did not go that far. They stepped back and the results are seen today.

Romania got over this phase in an acceptable manner, considering its weak administrative capacity, dysfunctional sanitary system and country specifics. Romania was put under siege by tens of thousands of its citizens who were returning from working and living in Italy, the epicenter of the epidemic in Europe. The situation could have been much worse.

Conditions were there for a bleak outcome. But there were no images of overwhelmed morgues and with coffins carried in the street at night. A handful of experts, a proper health minister, the militarization of decision-making and a head of state who was more involved in the affairs of the country than he usually is, a good collaboration between him and the government made things work somehow.

The militarization of decision-making in specific cases revealed the failure of local authorities in major hot spots like the cities of Suceava and Deva, where highly political hospital and sanitary management authorities proved dysfunctional.

The president, the prime minister and other officials took responsibility over hard decisions in an extreme situation. But also stood out the incompetence of the Interior minister, Marcel Vela, who made too many mistakes and communicated badly, leaving other officials to save face.

Far from relevant was also the number of tests made by Romania, a very low number which resulted in a low number of cases, which was announced triumphantly by both President Iohannis and PM Ludovic Orban. The testing capacity was later upped to about 10,000 per day, but generally it stood in the thousands.

While it first hesitated about closing schools as it was still focusing on early elections, the Orban government eventually adopted the measure before other countries. It it is notable that it did not hurry to re-opening them, even though the situation gets very complicated for many families.

The population complied especially well with the restrictions, considering Romanians are a people with not too high e respect for rules. It is possible that the level of compliance was prompted by the very high fines applied by authorities – and there have been over 300,000 fines. There were many an irresponsible person fooling around, but the situation was under control, with no protests or displays of civil disobedience as it happened in other countries.

And the Constitutional Court was rather late to announce that sanctions for not complying with the emergency rules were non-constitutional – the fines had already had a dissuasive effect. Yet, the Court stopped the government from limiting rights and freedoms through military ordinances and emergency ordinances – its decision was good for democracy.

In comparison, neighboring Hungary is ruled by PM Viktor Orban through decrees, more than 120 so far, which helped him strengthen control over the country, over businesses and resource sharing. The latest Freedom House report says the neighboring country is no longer a democracy and Brussels is repeatedly warning Budapest to comply with European values, but without any success.

Unfortunately, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EPP group Orban’s Fidesz party belongs to prove just as incapable to react to Orban’s sliding away from democratic rules.

Fortunately, Romania has not recorded any serious democratic issues as the checks and balances, as imperfect as they are, are working.

While authorities managed the state of emergency well enough, discontent was wide among the population given that a million jobs were suspended and many businesses were closed, some of which will never recover.

The government intervened with minimal economic measures in support of industries hit by the crisis and of employees. The economic disaster was prevented through measures adopted so far.

But there is a lack of a coherent plan of recovering and of investments in the economy, which the government promised. Macro indicators announce a huge deficit, especially if the government sicks to a planned 40% increase of pensions, which would prevent any major public investment plan. There would simply be no money anymore but for salaries and pensions.

There were some bad decisions. One was a ban on cereals, which was lifted following pressure from Brussels – for an instant, Romania forgot it was an EU member country. Another governmental decision, to give money to the press under the pretense of an Covid-related information campaign, in a year with two rounds of elections, does not look good either.

For all of the above, the governing Liberals (PNL) have been hit hard in opinion polls. A poll by research institute IMAS in early may it showed PNL lost 14 points in the past three months – or some 5 percentage points per month. This becomes relevant when considering recent populist statements made by otherwise balanced president Iohannis, supported in office by the Liberals. He recently accused the opposition Social Democrats of no less than planning to hand Transylvania to the Hungarians.

Iohannis’ position has contributed to more tense relations with the neighboring country, which were already pressed by a revisionist policy pursued by officials in Budapest.

But these where not the only tense moments in the society. In large Rroma communities violence erupted around Easter as local leaders and others who had returned from abroad were battling for supremacy in these poor areas. Police forces were accused of brutality in some circumstances.

And the pandemic brought to limelight another phenomenon – that of seasonal workers travelling West. A special train was needed for caregivers bound for Austria, and aerial corridors for asparagus pickers in Germany and elsewhere. This showed how much the agriculture and economy of Western countries depend on labor from the East, how interconnected are EU member countries and how nationalistic, isolationist speeches across the continent falter before this evidence.

Yet, Romanian officials performed poorly in dealing with the seasonal workers problem, leaving them to go West with minimal safety measures.

Now, when their situation has become visible due to the coronavirus, the opposition gets more animated about it, despite having done nothing for them for seven years.

Tender rules were suspended during the state of emergency, which led to dubious procurement, including a case where sanitary masks procurement was granted to a firm which used to sell alcohol.

Newly named chief prosecutors did not open any relevant case so far, despite all the signs that resource allocation was made in a discretionary manner in many cases, with contracts going to party cronies and well-connected companies.

The PSD opposition has tried to play this legit card of pressure on the government, but without any credibility, considering its own performance when it comes to justice and that the party is represented by many of the local administrative chiefs involved in shady deals with public funds.

PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu first played the role of a responsible opposition, trying not to stay in Iohannis’ and Ludovic Orban’s way too much, but his own insecurity within his party led him to a more radical and populist positioning lately.

In a year with both local and general elections, parties are expected to behave in opportunistic manners, boasting Left- or Right-leaning populist messages and a more radical tone.

Smaller parties such as the USR and PLUS could hardly be heard during this time of crisis, while they tried.

Despite an outburst in favor of breaking isolation during Easter, the Orthodox Church behaved like a good soldier overall, complying with rules applied by the authorities. This was not only because of the responsible behavior of clerics, but also because of their reflex to collaborate with authorities, which the church inherited from the communist era. Still, many custom-related controversies such as those to the common use of a single spoon during a religious service showed that not even the crisis allows for the building of a more modern Church.

Last but not least, Romania did not go through the pandemic alone, but side by side with other EU countries. Brussels did not have much to say in this situation. The health and sanitary security problems remain with member states and the EU can issue recommendations and coordinate decision-making mostly.

As we witnessed the shock of renewed borders within the EU, as we prepare to discuss the future of euro and as countries prepare to battle over distribution of resources, all of them need help to restart the economy. Yet tensions between North and South are increasing.

And national selfishness is gaining new ground as each state struggles for the good of its own people.

As it remains to be seen whether the EU will manage to go through this shock, one thing is certain> Romania and other countries in this part of the world have no future outside of Europe, without Europe’s rules and values.

The epidemic is not over, nor is the crisis. There will probably be a second or third wave, followed by new states of emergency. This fight with the virus will continue most probably until a vaccine is developed.

(Edited in English by Costin Ionescu)

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