• C.A. Stoica

In Dracula’s Land, Using Garlic Might Be Better Than Relying on Authorities during the Covid Crisis

When officials are claiming that the country is fully prepared to handle the coronavirus situation, many Romanians have a déjà vu nightmarish feeling.

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BUCHAREST, March 13, 2020, 9:30 am – Although thus far only 168 cases have been confirmed (and still counting), and over 17, 000 people are in self-isolation or in quarantine, in Romania – Dracula’s land – using garlic to combat this epidemic might be more rational than relying on authorities.

Media-induced panic aside, Romanians have rather solid reasons to be frightened. First, over one million Romanians currently live in Italy, representing 23% of Italy’s immigrant population. As Northern Italy was about to go on lock-down, many Italians have attempted to take shelter in the South. For Romanians in Northern Italy, especially those with precarious jobs, avoiding the lock-down has meant going back home. The possible influx of “our [Romanian] Italians” led authorities to cancel all commercial flights to and from Italy for two weeks.

Land borders, however, are more difficult to police. As a rule, all individuals coming from “red” zones in Italy are either quarantined or told to self-isolate at home for fourteen days. Local social media is full of stories of Romanians who flee the “red” zones, go to other cities outside Italy and fly home from there, thus hiding their real departure points to avoid being forced into quarantine. The upcoming Orthodox Easter, on April 19 will further complicate things; Easter and Christmas are the two holidays when Romanians living abroad come home in droves. Public officials have asked their fellow citizens not to come home from Italy, as they might endanger their families and older parents, in particular.

Another sound reason to panic is the state’s low institutional capacity to deal with critical situations. Romania’s financial resources are fairly limited. It is not only because Romania is poorer as compared to other EU countries but its economic and fiscal policies have weakened the state’s capacity to act even during “normal” times. A flat income tax of 16%, rampant tax evasion, widespread corruption, and increased spending only on the military and the intelligence services have severely hampered Romania’s ability to manage more or less problematic situations.

Scarce financial resources, however, are but one side of this story. The other is the poorly prepared and, at times, stunningly incompetent state bureaucracy. Irrespective of their political leanings, most post-communist governments have been populated with poorly qualified individuals. Seemingly, many top and mid-level officials are appointed to government positions based almost exclusively on their willingness to siphon off public money for their parties, private business sponsors, and families. The result is a bureaucracy that is not only incompetent but also predatory.

The combination between a financially weak state and an incompetent, predatory leadership proved lethal in 2015, when 64 people died following the fire at the Collective Nightclub, in Bucharest. Back then, public officials claimed Romania has everything it needs to properly care for the wounded, and initially refused to seek help from the EU. The wounded, however, were put in hospitals where nosocomial infections were rife but kept secret. Apparently, some victims who could have survived had they been immediately transferred abroad, died due to intra-hospital infections.

Social media posts of healthcare workers have a desperate tone; they claim that, at the grassroots level, chaos prevails and hospitals seem to be in short supply of disinfectants, protective gear, masks, and test-kits. Similar anxious opinions have transpired in conversations among doctors from a Bucharest hospital, which were published by investigative reporters of a local newspaper, Libertatea. In addition, preventive measures such as washing hands are problematic in a country where 32.5% of the population does not have access to running water and approximately 30% of households do not have indoor toilets.

Worse yet, at the onset of the crisis, Romania had an interim government, with limited decision-making capabilities. After four weeks of politicking and two failed attempts to form a new cabinet, a new government, headed by the previously dismissed PM, eventually gained the Parliament’s confidence vote. President Klaus Iohannis, after weeks of being absent from the public space, instituted a state of emergency on Monday, March 16.

Thus, when officials are claiming that the country is fully prepared to handle the coronavirus situation, many Romanians have a déjà vu nightmarish feeling. There is little else they can do but panic, knowing all too well that their political leaders are good only at impression management and at hiding the dirt under the rug. For the time being, all that Romanians can do is brace themselves for the peak of this crisis. And, why not?, stockpile garlic.