11. Jun 2020 - Carter Johnson and Diana Dumitru

By all measures, Moldova is an example of everything a country should not do. Achieving independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this tiny country started inauspiciously: already in 1992, a dispute with separatists resulted in a civil war the government lost, leaving 12 per cent of its territory only nominally within its borders. A string of reforms in the 1990s devastated its economy. Despite a highly educated population, people were thrown into penury. On a number of occasions, the country was left without heat and electricity; Moldova’s parliament was briefly forced to use candles, as were surgeons in operating rooms. As if that was not enough, a string of outrageously corrupt politicians bled the country’s collapsing economy dry. By 2015, this habituated venality reached its apogee, with political leaders in the Western-supported coalition government brazenly stealing over 1 billion US dollars – 13 per cent of the country’s GDP. The results of this post-independence mismanagement are staggering: an average monthly doctor’s salary is 260 Euro, a teacher makes barely 150 Euro – not even enough to pay the cost of heating in winter. Up to a million of its citizens, including thousands of doctors and nurses, have become economic migrants, most of them within Europe.

And then came the Coronavirus.

When Italy became the epicenter of Covid-19 in late February 2020, Moldova was particularly vulnerable. Due to its migrant population, regular flights saw thousands of passengers shuttling daily between Chișinău and at least six airports in Italy. Thousands more traveled back and forth by bus and car, each potentially bringing the coronavirus. Similarly high numbers shuttled between Moldova and Spain. As the virus outbreak began shutting down Europe’s economies, hundreds of thousands of Moldovans began returning home from across the continent. Expectations for Moldova’s ability to address the pandemic were bleak.

The government faced a historically unprecedented situation with no templates to rely upon. One has to look back to 1960 to find an epidemic that had the potential to threaten Moldova. At that time, while Moldova was still within the Soviet Union, a highly contagious form of smallpox brought from India was discovered in Moscow and began to spread. The Kremlin took drastic measures, placing a strict quarantine around all of Moscow, severing its links with the rest of the country. Millions of Muscovites were vaccinated within two weeks and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova was spared any serious effects. Fast-forward 60 years and Moldova this time was on its own.

To the surprise of most, the government took swift, decisive action. Before the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed, Moldova banned teachers and university professors from traveling abroad and instituted mandatory temperature checks at its airport. On 7 March, a passenger from Milano was taken from the airport to a Chișinău hospital, becoming the first known case of the coronavirus in Moldova. All passengers from the flight were placed on mandatory quarantine. The government immediately canceled all kindergartens, schools, and universities, and banned entry to non-Moldovans arriving from countries with serious Covid-19 infections. Moldovans entering the country were required to self-isolate with medical staff phoning daily for 14 days to check temperatures and other conditions. Anyone with symptoms was taken to the hospital and tested.

On 15 March, with 23 cases and not a single death, the government announced a cessation of all regular flights and banned non-citizens from entering the country. The next day, all restaurants and cafes were closed, the army was allowed onto the streets to enforce a strict lock-down, closing parks and playgrounds. Moldova’s police set out to reinforce quarantine rules and to prevent over-crowding on public transportation, which was made free in order to protect ticket collectors.

What explains this set of efficient actions by a ruling elite that had made such spectacularly wrong decisions in the past? One explanation is the large migrant population in Italy, which made the government painfully attuned to the virus’s potential, amplifying people’s fears at an early stage. The government was also acutely aware that the country’s healthcare system was in frightening condition due to both 30 years of underfunding and outright theft. A complete collapse of the system was imminent. More cynically, for the first time since 1991, with west European hospitals becoming overwhelmed, Moldova’s wealthy may have realized they wouldn’t be able to rely on a flight abroad for urgent medical treatment as in years past, and therefore saw a personal incentive to control the pandemic’s spread locally as their only alternative. Faced with these realities, the government listened closely to the World Health Organization’s advice and acted accordingly. A familiarity with the Soviet model of an omnipresent and forceful state may also have facilitated both politicians’ and the public’s acceptance of serious control measures.

But the government’s response is only part of the story. While politicians embraced restrictive controls, ordinary Moldovans adopted their own course of action. The dire crises of the 1990s are still fresh in the minds of Moldova’s older generations – they serve as a constant reminder that during grave crises one can only rely on family and social networks for support; one cannot rely on the state. Those turbulent years taught people, for example, to stock non-perishable goods. This meant the hype of panic buying was not nearly as intense as in some Western countries. Doubting the state’s capacity to solve important issues, civil society and social entrepreneurs also sprang into action. Moldova’s version of Uber (called iTaxi) began offering free transport to medical professionals at any time. Restaurants that had been forced to close began preparing free meals for medical staff and police. One group of concerned citizens coordinated food delivery to the city’s homeless, who had been suddenly left without their staple restaurant disposals as a source of nourishment. Numerous individuals, institutions, and businesses donated money to battle Covid-19.

The results of these coordinated efforts, with under 4,500 infected and 143 deaths by early May, were better than in many European countries, including neighboring Romania, both in absolute and per capita death rates. Each death is, of course, a tragedy families and friends, and medical staff in particular have suffered a disproportionately high infection rate (25 percent) due to lack of proper protective gear and training – a result that should be investigated. The population’s lack of trust in the state, their Soviet experience of shirking, and high levels of corruption may also have contributed to more deaths than necessary. There are stories of bribes being paid to priests and police to allow illegal funeral rituals. But given the state’s low capacity, these Covid-19 mortality rates to date are much better than could have been expected. This provides a rare glimpse of hope to Moldova’s citizens, many of whom have completely lost confidence in the country’s future.

Post scriptum: On 15 May, Moldova began relaxing its strictest lockdown measures, opening many stores and businesses while resuming regularly scheduled public transportation with strict rules to enforce social distancing, limiting public gatherings of more than five and mandating masks in all closed public spaces. Many remain highly doubtful as to how well these rules will be followed in a country with weak rule of law, low trust in public officials, and high levels of corruption. For weak states, it is easier to have a blunt lockdown than to navigate and enforce more nuanced policies. Almost expectedly, an increase of Coronavirus cases followed this reopening. In less than a month, the number of Covid-19 cases climbed from 4,500 to over 10,000; the number of deaths has more than doubled to 365 as of writing. This worrisome trajectory has left the authorities in a quandary about further relaxation, with restaurants, schools and kindergartens still closed at the time of writing.

About the authors

Carter Johnson is associate professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow and Regional Director for Russia, Moldova and Romania, American Councils for International Education.

Diana Dumitru is Associate Professor of History at Ion Creangă State University of Moldova.

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