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

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

When vaccination began simultaneously in all 27 EU states, in late December 2020, Romania reported for a short while some of the highest figures in the bloc, but it quickly became the second least vaccinated member country. It is now customary to attribute this dismal performance to rampant anti-vaccine sentiment among the Romanian population, even though some survey evidence pointed to more pronounced vaccine skepticism and vaccine hesitancy in Western countries such as France in particular[1]. On closer inspection, however, the finger pointed at anti-vaccine ideas and groups by high government officials in Romania constituted – without denying in the least the deleterious effects of anti-vaccination propaganda and activism – more of an abdication from responsibility which obscures the serious blunders of the government itself in vaccination matters. This was particularly the situation with the much-publicized case of some anti-vaccine Christian Orthodox clergy. For 30 years, many Liberals in the country decried the absence of a government-independent Church, and one was to believe that it emerged all of sudden in the midst of the pandemic! In the end, it was not the spread of anti-vaccine ideas which determined the vaccination rate in a country, but the actions or non-actions of public authorities. 

Chronic Ills of an Acute Health Policy 

As with the lockdown policy, the unimpressive Romanian vaccination campaign succumbed to three ills. Thus, in the early phased, when hundreds of thousands of people scrambled and queued to take the shot in insufficient and sometimes difficult to reach vaccination centers, revelations emerged regarding an off-the-radar government decision to vaccinate active and retired defense and law and order personnel, as well as all their next-of-kin, in military hospitals around the country before the most vulnerable groups. The news spurred a sense of bewilderment, outrage and injustice amid all the public debate about ethically prioritizing the population that surpassed the many questions raised by the numerous categories of exceptions as well as the half-sanctioned behavior of some politicians and politically-connected quarantine-offenders the year before, and put an end to the Chinese-style operation ahead of completion.

Then the vaccination campaign, which was supposed to be based on science and science alone, became unbelievably politicized, its key figures bowing to what one may surmise as pressure to make totally baseless statements in support of the premature decision of PM Florin Cîțu – an economist concerned primarily with the budget deficit – to lift all restrictions and reopen the economy with a vengeance as early as May 15th 2021. On several occasions, first the national vaccination coordinator, Valeriu Gheorghiță, and then the new Minister of Health, Alexandru Rafila, in the government of Nicolae Ciucă, who replaced Cîțu as PM in late November 2021, declared that Romania – the second least vaccinated country in the EU, ahead only of Bulgaria, which had barely reached 30% – had “acquired collective immunity to the virus through vaccination and disease”. The two even tried to give mathematical rigor to the incredible claim in repeated comments complemented by a difficult to figure out calculus which confusingly adjusted the resident population statistics of Romania downward by around 4 million people – and this was happening at a time when medical experts worldwide were warning that the numerous mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus risked rendering collective immunity impossible to attain.

Last but not least came the quiet abandonment, or more precisely self-sabotage, of the whole vaccination policy. This happened in the fall of 2021, when Romania failed to adopt firm and decisive nudge measures to push the vaccination rate over 30%, after vaccination centers emptied during the summer, by generalizing the so-called green certificate for access in public spaces as was done in France in particular. If the Romanian Parliament would have adopted the law and the law would have been applied by the Romanian Government, there was a good chance that the country would have followed France, Germany and other Western EU countries in converging towards a 60-70% vaccination rate by the end of last year. This would still have been short of the well over 90% target achieved by the highly-publicized and highly-engaged Portuguese vice-admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo – who did succeed, as vaccination chief of the country, in using the military’s prestige and the population’s patriotic deference to it with an effectiveness that turns into a laughing matter the quite common pandemic war rhetoric used almost everywhere else –, but, in any case, a much better point from which his Romanian counterpart could start lecturing about collective immunity. Instead, Romanian officials chose to do nothing, in fact they even failed to impose the green pass in public buildings although it began to function in shopping malls, the political argument in vogue being that it discriminates between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, as the first can also transmit the disease. This failure to grasp the signaling and nudging significance of a measure adapted from an instrument initially designed for cross-border tourism was total among Romanian politicians. This is even though such approaches, accompanied by deadlines, proved very effective in raising the vaccination rate in France during the end of summer and the beginning of fall 2021, despite considerable public discontent. By this time, they have abandoned even the pretense of mimicking its most earnest Western counterparts and seemed to mainstream vaccine skepticism and anti-scientific thought on par with a new far-right party which, it has to be said, unfairly took all the blame. 

Politics Run Mad 

The Romanian legislative election of 2020 were singular among the pandemic elections held in Europe in that a new far-right party – called the The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) – gained a little over 9% of the vote, in what was the lowest participation rate for a parliamentary election in the country since 1990, and entered Parliament, while the trend in Europe as well as in North America since the onset of the medical crisis was for right-to-far-right parties to lose votes or at best stagnate despite the vocal opposition of some groups to various epidemiological restrictions.

Although nominally a nationalist party, whose purpose was to reunite with Romania the former Moldovan SSR, which represents the majority of Greater Romanian territories the USSR under Joseph Stalin annexed first in June 1940 and then again at the end of the Second World War, AUR proved to be focused almost entirely and often virulently on opposing practically all pandemic restrictions, even as basic as social distancing or wearing a medical mask in crowded areas, as well as on voicing and fueling anti-vaccination ideas (which for some quite influential analysists reinforces the idea that it was the discontent of the lockdown which gave birth to the AUR party more than preexisting nationalist groupings[2]). Nonetheless, it is a grave mistake to view AUR as the culprit for the failure of the epidemic control policies in Romania: such a position would amount to nothing less than confusing the jester with the king in the palace hall! With a tiny proportion of MPs, often absent from the Parliament’s benches to lead protest marches on the emptied streets of major cities, its power to alter or blackmail government policy was marginal, despite the fact that it played an instrumental role in the political crisis that opposed the centre-right governing coalition between PNL and USR, which ended with the removal of Florin Cîțu as Liberal PM. The power that AUR did possess, however, was more akin to spiritual power: it revealed the hidden shared thinking of most Romanian politicians and allowed those who dared not to be so outspoken to look like moderates.

None of the three PNL heads of government that Romania had since the beginning of the pandemic was particularly attached to a strict epidemic policy and clear about the goals to be achieved. Ludovic Orban, the first of them, copied with a small lag all the policies adopted by the leading EU countries in the beginning, but this was most likely done more out of a desire to rehabilitate Romania’s European credentials after the rhetorical conflict opposing the European Commission and previous Romanian Governments led by the rival Social-Democrats than out of close analysis of the country’s capacity to implement them or personal convictions. The idea that a strict lockdown bought time for preparing the medical system to cope with the pandemic was contradicted by the late adoption of mandatory mask wearing after the first lockdown was – partially – lifted and the many dysfunctions that continued to plague hospitals, including lack of surgical masks, while the airing of pictures from his quarantine-breaking birthday party cast a doubt over his sincerity.

Florin Cîțu, the second Romanian PM of the pandemic, who took office after the December 6th 2020 election in a noisy break-up with his predecessor, did try to hammer out a new and more independent-minded policy course, but he was never explicit about it. A Minister of Finance in the previous minority and coalition cabinets of Ludovic Orban, he made his reputation as the man who keeps the Romanian economy on course and promotes an American-style business friendly economic environment. Florin Cîțu was under the influence of the dominant opinion, particularly among right of center economists, that epidemic restrictions and economic growth were at odds. Consequently, he sought to rebalance the two in favor of the second in a more categorical fashion than Macron’s “living with the virus” policy shift announced at about the same time. If the vaccination campaign hadn’t bogged down without him doing nothing to relaunch it, his premature opening, not just a “relaxation”, might have been viewed more positively, but instead he become ever more unpopular.

The third pandemic head of government in Romania, Nicolae Ciucă – a former Chief of the General Staff and the first Romanian field commander in a war situation since 1945 –, assumed office after long negotiations between President Iohannis and the parliamentary parties only in late November 2021, but he already epitomizes the militarization of governing in the country as well as its ineffectiveness. The bureaucratic machine setup to fight the pandemic made up of an alphabet soup of Committees and medical institutions trudges on virtually untouched by facts. Although hospitals are full of patients infected by the more contagious but less deadly Omicron coronavirus variant and the vaccination rate only reached 42%, the restrictions still being applied have been gradually relaxed since January 2022 and a new, full reopening is being planned for spring. Everything is “As in Europe”, and nothing is “As in Europe”. Worse still, even the hard gained political stability of the country is again in jeopardy after last year’s most inopportune governmental crisis stemming from accusations of Ph.D. plagiarism aimed at the new Prime Minister, apparently the only person who could muster an uneasy and antinomical governing coalition between the main center-right party, PNL, and the main center-left party, PSD, after the preceding and by all accounts more ideologically homogeneous governing coalition between PNL and USR collapsed. 

In Guise of a Conclusion 

Although Romania was among the “first response” group of countries in March 2020 (among the last “first responders” to the pandemic to be more precise), the initial, “Big Bang”, lockdown known in the country as “total quarantine”, which lasted until the end of May 2020, failed to contain the epidemic and to adequately prepare the medical system to handle its future course. Once the strict lockdown was lifted, the number of infections exploded throughout the summer. The government was unable to provide masks or testing for months, until the private sector filled the void, while poorly maintained and already overcrowded hospitals caught on fire or were being closed down and sick people haphazardly moved around in order to set up exclusively COVID-19 medical units that reduced the risk of intra-hospital infections.

The subsequent “stop-and-go” lockdown policy – which alternated periods of “relaxation” with periods of ratcheting-up restrictions and quarantines based on the numerical indicators for the rate of infection – proved unstable, easily politicized and more reactive rather than proactive in the face of the changing etiology of the virus, ultimately collapsing under its own ineffectiveness. The vaccination campaign – despite the advantages of EU logistics and the supposedly high-tech approaches towards its organization – is in a total stalemate: unaided by nudging policies and lacking good promotion, it might fail to cross the 50% vaccination threshold even after having started vaccinating teenagers as early as June 2021 and children as young as five since late January this year. A succession of political scandals and crises, generated by endless partisan in-fighting and unstable governing coalitions practically exhausted the already modest credibility of the country’s political elite, who still has to provide critical oversight and guidance for the bureaucracies engaged in applying and enforcing day-to-day epidemiological policy. And despite what these shapeshifting politicians in search of a scape-goat say, the end is not yet in sight.

 

[1] See the Gallup Institute survey for the NGO Welcome, ranking attitudes towards vaccination in 144 countries, which was published in their annual report just before the pandemic in June 2019: https://wellcome.ac.uk/reports/wellcome-global-monitor/2018.

[2] Barbu Mateescu, “Despre AUR și alte metale prețioase”, Pressone, December 7th, 2020: https://pressone.ro/despre-aur-dar-si-alte-metale-pretioase.

 
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