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The Coronavirus Epidemic in Romania: A Government Failure All-Along (I)

The Coronavirus Epidemic in Romania: A Government Failure All-Along (I)

More than two years after the start of the coronavirus epidemic, the real magnitude of the disaster it has wrought in Romania is plain for everyone to see. Although it entered into lockdown as one of the least affected countries, at least according to official statistics, in March 2020, it currently occupies a hard to believe 9th place worldwide in terms of coronavirus deaths per one million inhabitants, one notch above Brazil whose epidemic disaster has received more attention in the world’s media[1]. Furthermore, commonplace stories about rampant vaccine skepticism, anti-scientific thinking and bigotry among the Romanian population obscure the fundamental cause of the catastrophe: a failed government run by even more failed politicians. 

A Propensity for Form Rather than Substance 

Although the European countries’ response to the unfolding coronavirus pandemic has not been homogeneous, they have acted in lockstep to combat the threat once its devastating potential was recognized. At the European Union level in particular, they have closely coordinated policies, Sweden’s exceptionalism notwithstanding, by instituting a continent-wide lockdown following Italy’s example in order to stop or reduce the chain of contagion and by pooling resources in an unprecedented fashion to finance and distribute vaccines once developed. A not so new member anymore, Romania participated in all of these efforts, fully and officially adopted all EU initiatives, without voicing any objections, to the letter of minimal acceptable bounds of national variation. Unlike other Central and Eastern EU member countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, which also currently top the global list of coronavirus fatalities, Romania never attempted, for instance, to use less effective or controversial vaccines such as those developed by China and Russia, in fact its vaccination campaign is still conducted under the logo “As in Europe”. Nevertheless, the results soon diverged markedly. How can this be?

The explanation rests neither on historical institutional factors – such as cultural backwardness, lower social capital or lagging economic development, although many first hand examples can be gathered in support of this line of inquiry – nor on what might be called pure policy mistakes – of which there have been sufficient – but on the actions of a morally bankrupt political elite which has not only lost any credibility in the eye of the public and even of its reluctant bureaucracy, but, concerned with its perennial partisan infighting, it has allowed and in fact promoted the cheap politicization of the pandemic mitigation effort to the point of sabotaging the whole enterprise. Before dismissing the suggestion as harsh, consider the fact that social backwardness and social progress do not seem to align themselves with more or less vaccine hesitancy, for instance, and that the weaker administrative capacity of the Romanian state has been partly bolstered during this pandemic by the pooling of resources and common guidelines at the European level. A leitmotif of Romanian social thought is the country’s collective inclination for self-mystification, by substituting form for substance, doubled by the failure to act in solidarity when necessity and the public interest demands it. This time was no exception. 

The Politics of the Lockdown Policy

The lockdown, a generalization of the plague-era quarantine, has been the main policy instrument to combat the current pandemic before the development of appropriate vaccines and it remains the standard policy instrument even after vaccination has begun. Despite high economic costs and often low public forbearance, governments around the world resorted to lockdowns in various degrees to flatten the spread of the new virus. China, the place where the pandemic originated, adopted some of the most stringent and prolonged lockdown policies, involving measures such as mass internment in camps of people suspected of catching the infection and centralized distribution of food to the confined population in urban centers that only an authoritarian state could pursue. The federal government of the US, one of the most affected countries, initially adopted a hands-off approach, which verged on pandemic denial for many observers, leaving it up to local governments in the country to formulate their own response. In Europe, national governments coordinated their actions through European Union Councils and – with the exception of Sweden, as already mentioned – they greeted the onset of the pandemic by “Europeanizing” the Italian decision to lockdown the country. Although not quite uniform in its minute details (both international and internal travel, for instance, was a bit less restricted in Romania than in Italy or even France, two highly affected countries in the beginning), this continent-wide lockdown involved the activation of military-style emergency state laws, stay-at-home orders to the general populace and the reimposition of border controls. It lasted uninterruptedly from the end of March towards the end of May 2020, in most cases.

This “Big Bang” European lockdown soon gave birth to more variation across the continent as national governments were forced to define more clearly the epidemiological policy to their constituencies and European Union coordination loosened. The goals of the lockdown policy remained vague (ranging from preventing the medical system from being overwhelmed to “keeping the virus out”), but there was a sense that a more measurable policy should be adopted after the exhaustion of the previous months. The Romanian Government followed the trend, but proved incapable of keeping pace with the countries that achieved the best results. The low competence of its administrative apparatus became almost immediately evident. It seemingly managed to estimate just once the reproduction rate of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the country – an often quoted parameter at the time on which many countries based their epidemic control policies – when it was published in an emergency ordinance issued by the government of PM Ludovic Orban, with little material effect over the day-to-day epidemiological policy other than to justify the “total quarantine”, as the EU coordinated first lockdown became known in Romania, through a worst-case scenario that predicted millions of fatalities. In any case, the Government settled on an easier to compute “stop-and-go” lockdown policy, based on the infection rate per 1.000 persons in a certain administrative unit (municipality, town, county, commune). In principle, this alternating lockdown policy balanced stringency with flexibility, centralization with local autonomy, but it soon proved a fiasco.

The new lockdown policy was instituted after an abridged state of emergency called “the state of alert” took effect, but the same people and institutions were in charge of operating it: the National Committee for Emergency Situations (CNSU), which assembles half a dozen governmental agencies – ranging from firefighters and police to paramedics and civil protection army personnel – and answers to the Ministry of the Interior, although the emergency power legislation it made use of in its decisions to close down schools, restrict businesses or suspend gatherings, free movement and other civil liberties was that previously issued by the Ministry of Defense. The Decisions of the Committee for Emergency Situations, a purely professional body, were supposed to respond more or less “automatically” to the reality on the ground, as captured by the infection rate indicators which, according to the new policy, triggered increasingly tighter restrictions as soon as they passed 3 cases per 1000 people in a certain administrative unit until they reached 6, when a new full lockdown was supposed to enter into effect. Restrictions were supposed to be gradually lifted as the rate fell. But, in practice, the Committee’s decisions were soon politicized, with local and central politicians contesting the attempt to trigger the restrictions, curfews and quarantines the numbers indicated to be necessary. The Municipal and County Councils of Timișoara led the way in publicly challenging the automatic activation of lockdown measures when the infection ceiling was reached, but the move was foreshadowed by the Bucharest Government’s own hesitations and misgivings. At the same time, the epidemiological statistics themselves – how they were reported and tabulated – came under question and the issue turned into a topic of dispute between the parties in the governing coalition, while the volatility of the Committee’s decisions, their arcane details and unpopular fines (in part annulled by the Constitutional Court) confused and alienated the public. By the end of spring 2021, the lockdown policy basically collapsed, with the centre-right coalition government of PM Florin Cîțu following suit.

Worse still, the “stop-and-go” lockdown policy did not seem pre-emptive enough. In other words, the policy’s in-built restrictions – even when properly triggered, although this stopped being systematically the case – seemed to be too little, too late when a new epidemic wave hit the country later in the year. One may imagine an alternating lockdown policy designed with more forward-looking, but less transparent and harder to obtain, data. However, it is doubtful the problem would have been solved. The epidemiological prognosis was loosely the domain of the National Institute of Public Health, but the Institute lagged behind in sequencing and modelling the impact of new coronavirus variants. Its confidential prognosis for the Government famously failed completely to anticipate the amplitude of the fatal delta wave Romania experienced in the fall and winter of 2021, in apparent desynchronization with most of continental Europe, which wrestled with it during the summer. The International press made headlines with pictures of Romanian hospitals overflowing with the bodies of COVID-19 patients that could not fit in the morgue, while the politicians took almost two critical months to invest a new right-left coalition government. 

The Vaccination Delusion 

Although hard to believe, the Romanian Government’s blunders regarding the lockdown policy are only surpassed by those concerning the vaccination campaign. And this is a pity, because at first glance the vaccination campaign had many prerequisites for success. Its supply was backed by the European Union’s collective bargaining, which despite some bad bets and minor delays, proved effective in shipping to all Member Countries the selected vaccines. Its management was entrusted to the Army, an institution which consistently tops the Romanian confidence surveys for the last 30 years. The person selected for the job by President Klaus Iohannis, a young military doctor – lieutenant-colonel Valeriu Gheorghiță, president of the new National Committee for the Coordination of Vaccination Activities (CNCAV) – seemed highly qualified: a specialist in infectious diseases no less! True, in retrospect, the auspices of the coronavirus vaccination campaign were not all bright. The dysfunctions that plague the postcommunist medical system (which has in fact become a two-track medical system – mostly private for the haves, mostly public for the have-nots, although the former still depends heavily on the resources of the latter) gradually habituated the Romanian population to failures in large scale vaccination campaigns and in the preceding decade some modest vaccination campaigns, like those concerning meningitis or the common flu, were ridden with scandals which involved not only chronic serological shortages but at one point some vaccines doses past their expiration date – a fact that must have had a negative impact on the people’s perception and level of confidence in vaccination in general. Nevertheless, according to a highly cited cross-country study published in September 2020 in The Lancet by Alexandre de Figueiredo et al., Mapping global trends in vaccine confidence and investigating barriers to vaccine uptake, the Romanian public’s confidence in vaccination was on the rebound on the eve of the pandemic. 

The first sign of vaccination campaign debacle was the national online platform[2] that was supposed to coordination the population for vaccination once supplies became available; to register every Romanian adult as well as his dependents; to sort out and prioritize the elderly and the most vulnerable, i.e., citizens known to suffer from other chronic diseases described by CNCAV as having “comorbidities”, which in case of infection would lead them to limited and overburdened intensive-care units, with a very high probability of death nonetheless. The website was designed by a government agency called the Special Telecommunications Service (STS) and, in the winter of 2020, it collected personal data from millions of eager Romanians, but, after a few months of underuse, the innovative and expensive e-government experiment was practically sidelined and abandoned. The Government realized that most people, the most vulnerable people in particular but by no means exclusively, did not have the ability to use the platform, and, even if they did, they preferred to make appointments through family doctors or simply showed up at vaccination centers with no online registration. Worse still, the people managing the platform realized that they could not actually make appointments for those registered in the data base, because they “lacked the personnel to do it”, which practically defeats the whole purpose of online coordination. The only thing the platform ended up doing was to announce when the shipments of vaccines arrived in particular vaccination centers and distribute government-authorized information regarding the COVID-19 epidemic. A pretty low return on public investment in times of crisis! 

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels 

(To be continued.)

[1] Statista Tables, December 13 2021 : https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/.

[2] https://vaccinare-covid.gov.ro/.

 
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