24. Jun 2020 - Bogdan C. Iacob

On 6 May, the Romanian Constitutional Court decided that the governmental decree imposing fines against those who violated lockdown and social distancing rules (OUG 34/2020 passed on 31 March) was unconstitutional. The court argued that the ordinance had infringed on citizens’ fundamental rights, such as the right to property, work, freedom of information, and economic rights. Moreover, it lacked the essential quality of predictability because the criteria for setting the fines were arbitrary, unconnected with existing legislation. This decision effectively ended the state of emergency ten days earlier than planned, forcing the centre-right government to scramble for a new legislative framework that would allow the management of the Covid-19 crisis in the country. On 14 May, president Klaus Iohannis declared that the country had downgraded to a state of alert (stare de alertă), which allowed the government to enforce a new set of penalties during the pandemic.

The legal fluidity which has characterized the past weeks has revealed the shaky foundation of the Romanian authorities’ response to the pandemic. The absence of coherent laws during the state of emergency shines light on long-standing problems associated with post-socialist governance.

While Romania has largely kept the spread of infection in check, the heavy-handedness of the government sparked some criticism, especially the decision to use the army to enforce the state of emergency in late March. Personally, the image of the army on the streets of Bucharest was difficult to digest, eliciting flashbacks of the bloody revolution in 1989 and the political violence of the 1990s. However, it seems that in Romania it was perceived as a necessary response to prevent a public health crisis. An opinion poll published by the Romanian Institute for Strategy and Evaluation at the end of April showed that the army had the support of 84 per cent of the population, the highest number of any of the state institutions. The visibility of the military early on foreshadowed the fact that governance during lockdown in Romania would have a considerable punitive dimension. At the time of the Constitutional Court ruling over 300,000 people had been fined, amounting to a total sum of 120 million euros. The government’s response very much resembles the paternalistic policing of a society seemingly unable to unite against an unprecedented threat to its existence. The importance of dialogue and collaboration with the citizenry was secondary, a consequence of the mistrust between state and society that is rooted in the country’s history of modernization from above, regardless of political regime. Romania is hardly an exception: in France, Greece, or the United Kingdom there was similar emphasis on policing at the expense of reciprocity and social participation. In Denmark, where the approach of “we are in this together” dominated, the prime minister took extreme precautionary measures against the advice of health experts.   

Looking at it from the outside, as I am from my current residence in Denmark, I get a strong sense that the Romanian government’s approach to the pandemic has been haphazard. The use of the army, local breakdowns in hospital administrations and the ambiguous legal background for the lockdown are reminiscent of the weakness of post-socialist state institutions. In April, three fourths of Romanians declared that they trust the National Committee for the State of Emergency. While the population’s trust in the government hovers around 25 per cent, more than half the population supports the ministries of health and internal affairs. Overall, six out of ten Romanians have a positive view of the governmental measures taken against the pandemic and eight out of ten supported the extension of the state of emergency. In early February, a month before the pandemic reached Romania, a poll showed that only 40 per cent of Romanians trusted the Ministry of Health, while 60 per cent lacked confidence in the services of state hospitals; at the same time, 70 per cent trusted the medical personnel. I would argue that the general syndrome of rallying around the flag – typical in a state of emergency – extended to the people’s perceptions of state institutions. In the short term, the need for certainty during the pandemic trumped the long-standing lack of confidence in the efficiency of healthcare administration. 

The number of deaths and the infection rates has remained low, and Romanians are rightfully relieved. However, the tribulations of the state’s response paired with a strong dose of government heavy-handedness paint a picture, from the outside, of papering over the cracks of a weak state with weak institutions. Some of the success in Eastern Europe during the Covid-19 crisis has been linked to decision-makers’ acknowledgement of the frailty of national health systems, long underfunded and suffering from the exodus of medical workers to the West. This reality forced governments to react sooner than in other European states, which were complacent, overestimating their ability to deal with the infection curve. Another reason for the low rates of infection involves the more limited transnational connections of Eastern European countries compared to Western ones. For example, the number of airline routes in Romania is much lower than those in the United Kingdom, Italy, or Germany. However, the fate of Romania’s gradual re-opening will very much depend on coherent administration and civic responsibility; it is difficult to imagine that policing measures will continue to be effective without bringing an authoritarian cloud over the country.

The general picture of a satisfactory state and societal response during the lockdown obscures the disfunctions lurking beneath the surface. In the past months, there have been recurrent instances when entire hospitals have turned into foci of infection because of mismanagement and local abuses. Such occurrences are rooted in the persistent corruption and malpractice found in the Romanian public healthcare system. The county hospital of Suceava was perhaps the most prominent of these cases: the hospital director called upon medical workers regardless if they were infected and failed to insure basic safety measures (i.e. use of PPE) for both personnel and patients. The level of contagion was so bad that the hospital had to be closed, only to be re-opened a few days later under military administration. The entire city had to be quarantined to stave off infections. Similar cases emerged across the country.

This raises the question of whether some of the positive developments in Romania are also the result of a society well versed in survival skills in spite of the system. Because of experience with state socialism, transition to liberal democracy, EU accession and the financial crisis of 2008, Romanians have honed their ability of managing the murky waters of disfunctional state administration. Since 2015, when 64 people died in a fire at the Colectiv club in Bucharest, the corruption and malpractice rampant in national healthcare have taken centre stage in public debates. Despite high profile firings and law suits, a genuine reform of the medical administration has yet to occur.         

The image of administrative shortcomings during lockdown, contrasted against the adaptability and tolerance of the population to hardship, was striking in stories about the support system for the elderly. The sense of isolation has been rampant among this section of the population, alleviated only by civic efforts to provide basic necessities for the most vulnerable people. The problem was again compounded by low levels of social trust. One of the volunteers underlined that “Romanians have not learned the habit of asking for and receiving help”. Decades of getting by to the best of one’s abilities in the context of endemic suspicion toward state authorities has fostered anomie.

The response to the pandemic in Romania displays a propensity towards believing that top-down measures will work or that the damage they inflict will remain secondary to the overall progress of the country. This dynamic of two steps forward one step back has characterized Romania’s development since 1989 and generated significant inequalities within the country. There are huge differences between opportunities and living conditions in the big cities versus the rest of the country. The income gap is one of the highest in Europe: a 2018 study indicated that 10 per cent of Romanian households own 62 per cent of the country’s wealth. In the same year, a Eurostat poll showed that 35.7 per cent of Romanians were at risk of poverty and social exclusion.  Romania’s response to Covid-19 was the practice of ‘sink or swim’, which has also pervaded state-society dynamics for most of the past thirty-five years.

About the author

Bogdan C. Iacob is a fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and researcher at the Institute of History of the Romanian Academy in Bucharest, Romania

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