One of the consequences of former communist-era persecution in Romania is a lack of public trust in today's governance, which is hampering the country's fight against Covid-19.
New Year, new beginnings, but not for Romania. After the holiday season, the number of Covid-19 cases in this Balkan country has doubled. In November last year, it had the world's highest per capita Covid-19 death rate. Still, the country continues to be the EU's second least vaccinated state: just 40 percent of the population has been vaccinated.
Furthermore, Romania's fight against the pandemic is further problematised by another issue, namely conspiracy theories. A book titled "Covid, The Lie of The Century", distributed by self-published Romanian author Marius Mioc, asserts: "This is not a real pandemic, but hysteria, and it is driven by politics and the want to make money."
Such outlandish assertions, combined with latent mistrust of the Romanian public towards government-run institutions, have undermined the campaign for vaccination. Some rumours circulated describing convalescents as "paid actors pretending to be intubated patients".
Speaking to TRT World, Dr Octavian Jurma, former advisor to Romania's Health Ministry, said that the main reason behind the epidemic of conspiracy theories is the prevalence of a deep-seated mindset anchored in the communist era.
At that time, he added, the regime institutionalised lies and deception, and people became accustomed to the truth not being expected from the authorities. Thus, people resorted to alternative explanations and underground rumours. As a result, "underground news" became deeply rooted in the Romanian social psyche.
Meanwhile, local media's commercial needs pushing them to exaggerate news and deploy clickbait strategies have seen them regularly give airtime to all kinds of unfounded claims. This is mainly done to generate more advertisement revenue.
Some national TV shows allowed anti-vaxxers to spread their fallacies under the guise of presenting balanced opinions. These factors have mainstreamed fake news. Moreover, as Jurma notes, some questionable policies and practices by the authorities have been the straw that broke the camel's back, paving the way for the grim health situation that Romania faces today.
"Hospitals kill people, not Covid-19"
Among the most concerning beliefs being circulated, says Jurma, is the assertion that "hospitals kill people, not Covid-19", or "I brought him fine yesterday, and now they are telling me she/he is dead". These kinds of flawed statements undermine the integrity of medical personnel and health institutions. At the same time, the fake news becomes amplified when even people whose relatives died from Covid-19 deny the pandemic.
Furthermore, the proliferation of arguments by non-specialised social media users, such as "natural immunity is better”, or "vaccines make no difference", or that vaccines spread the infection, is immensely counterproductive. As highlighted by Jurma, this proves that vaccination campaigns need to be accompanied by equally strong education campaigns that educate people about the pros and cons of every step.
Due to the lack of demand for vaccines, Romania started to get rid of stocks. Last year, the government decided to donate 450,000 shots to South Korea. Additionally, the authorities sold 1.17 million doses of excess vaccines to Denmark. On Twitter, Micheal Martin, Ireland's prime minister, announced that his government completed a deal to secure 700,000 vaccines from Romania.
As the pandemic's fifth wave is on the verge of occurring, the spread of fake news has intensified. The "this is just the flu" argument has gained a new life. Some people say: "I will wait for the Omicron vaccine." Others consider the Omicron variant a natural vaccine that will end the pandemic.
A healthcare system hanging by a thread
With that in mind, hospitals are under immense pressure. When the Delta variant hit the country in October and November, Romania saw its worst days since the pandemic. The morgues of the hospitals were at full capacity. Bodies in plastic bags were lying in the hallway of the University Emergency Hospital in Bucharest.
All intensive care beds in the country were occupied at the end of October. Then, more critical patients were transferred to Poland and Hungary. In November, a German air force plane landed in Romania to take patients and treat them in German hospitals.
Romania has the lowest health spending among the EU countries, and only one state hospital has been built since the end of Communism. In a 2015 nightclub fire, 64 people lost their lives. However, only 27 of them died due to the fire. Hospital infections killed the rest. In 2018 Romania was amongst the EU countries with the highest preventable and treatable mortality rates.
Since November 2020, Romania has had three deadly hospital fires, in which 31 people died. The same year a bribery scandal over Covid-19 masks contract broke out. On top of this, the recent Global Corruption Barometer reports that Romania, alongside Bulgaria, has the highest bribery rates in the healthcare system.
Oddly enough, on the epidemiological map of Europe, published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), while Europe is all covered in red, Romania is the only country that has green regions. Here comes the argument: "We have the lowest vaccination rate, but they have the highest number of cases; clearly vaccination is useless." However, as Jurma underlines, Romania has the lowest testing per million inhabitants in Europe.
"Omicron is less severe than Delta"
According to Jurma, Omicron will seriously hit the country. The consequences will be greater since many believe that Omicron is less severe than Delta. Last week, the number of infected increased and a worrying fluctuation in the vaccination rates has occurred.
On November 8, stricter measures were imposed. Still, a Covid pass plan for workers is blocked in Parliament. On the other hand, the National Audiovisual Council (CNA) - the only regulator for the audiovisual sector in Romania – tried to impose fines on the outlets that spread vaccine disinformation. However, the CNA has struggled to monitor and stop the fake news. A month ago, anti-Covid-19 pass protesters tried to break into the parliament, protesting against the aforementioned passes.
Jurma predicts that even if Omicron sends 50 percent fewer people to the hospital than Delta, Romania will still have a record number of hospitalisations, ICU admissions, and death rates compared to the EU. This situation means that the fifth wave will hit Romania even harder than in October.
Overall, a bleak picture emerges. The combination of deeply entrenched distrust towards the authorities, powerful fake news in traction, and a crumbling healthcare system, could well represent one of Romania's worst health crises in centuries. Meanwhile, the preparation against this probability is weak. People still hope for the best. However, hope is not a strategy.