From the Editor

Postcard from Romania: The most gentle of lockdowns, and Easter, make me anxious

Since Romania first instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 17 I have left my apartment on just four occasions: thrice to shop for food, and once to collect a new barbeque I had ordered online (try telling me that a barbeque is not an essential item). We don’t have a garden per se, but we do have access to a small courtyard where each Saturday the four of us gather to grill mici, steaks and spend an hour or two as a family away from our phones, tablets and other screens. The kids have left the apartment just once, to buy bread and milk from a local shop.

Like most people in Romania, we take the threat posed by the coronavirus seriously. We are also aware that the more we stay inside now, the quicker this nightmare will be over and we can resume something that at least resembles normal life. It would be easy to bend the rules (it’s always easy to bend the rules in a country that takes pride in ignoring them), but for the common good we do as we are told: we stay at home.

Unfortunately, as with a number of other countries (the UK being a prime example) there is a sizeable minority in Romania which is not taking the lockdown seriously. This is partly down to personal irresponsibility, and an unwillingness to obey government guidelines, but also partly the fault of the government itself, which beyond the odd display of force (the army was very publicly paraded on the streets of Bucharest a couple of weeks ago) has policed the lockdown in a casual, almost carefree manner.

Romania’s government has not had a good crisis so far. Its measures to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19 have been underwhelming, although given that the county is – to use a technical term – skint, its room for fiscal manoeuvre is extremely limited.

More than one million people have been made unemployed since the beginning of March, their numbers swelled by hundreds of thousands of Romanians returning home after losing their jobs in Italy, Spain and the UK. It’s no wonder that so many are keen to take any opportunity to head abroad once again, even if only for seasonal work, picking asparagus and forest fruits in Germany. The scenes this week at an airport in Cluj, in Transylvania, spoke volumes.

However, of even greater concern than the government’s lack of fiscal measures to help out small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of the Romanian economy, has been its muddled guidelines regarding the lockdown itself. Communication has been poor: clear, concise, easily-understood instructions have been severely lacking.

Instead, official announcements have been cloaked in the jargon known in these parts as limba de lemn (wooden language): the stilted, overly-official discourse that was commonplace across emerging Europe before 1989, but which survives to this day. Limba de lemn allows weak officials to hide behind a façade of authority conveyed by their office, not by their personal ability to communicate and command respect.

There is no better example of limba de lemn than the original lockdown announcement, which bizarrely stated that the order to stay at home was merely a ‘recommendation’. A recommended order. There was embarrassed laughter across the country.

The result was predictable. On March 21, an unusually hot day for the time of year, parks and open spaces across the country were full of walkers, joggers, picnickers and much bonhomie, with people well aware that a mere recommendation need not be obeyed.

At the time, Romania had confirmed just 367 cases of coronavirus. The first deaths were not recorded until the following day. By the time a new order had been issued to remove the word ‘recommended’ it was too late.

Since then, while we have in theory been in lockdown, the vast number of exceptions – for example, almost all of the country’s two and half million public servants are still travelling daily to work – have seen infections (now over 6,000), and deaths (approaching 350), increase at a rate that is not yet alarming, but which does suggest that stricter measures should have been put in place. Public transport continues to operate, and traffic on Bucharest’s streets – even a secondary street such as that on which I live – is still far too heavy to suggest that the city is in lockdown. Bucharest’s markets were yesterday packed, as locals stock up for Easter. At 8am there were long queues at the local supermarket.

Indeed, Easter – which in the Orthodox world falls next weekend – causes me great concern. It’s usually the biggest holiday of the year, with families getting together to attend midnight church services before eating Cool Hand Luke quantities of boiled eggs and roast lamb. I fear that many people will take the opportunity offered by the somewhat relaxed lockdown measures to do much the same as they would any other Easter. I hope I am wrong, but the crowds we will undoubtedly see at markets and supermarkets next weekend could be the beginning of a new wave of infection, just as we should be glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel.

At least the churches will be closed. Credit where it is due – the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church has told worshippers, in no uncertain terms, to stay at home. There will be some individual priests however who will ignore the patriarch and will at least attempt to hold clandestine services. Should the police intervene, Romania’s religious far-right will cry martyrdom.

There are already fundamentalists comparing the closure of churches at Easter to the end of the world, a sign of an impending new world order in which all traces of faith is erased. It has become their only concern: the state of Romania’s hospitals, the growing number of deaths and infections and the collapse of the economy are of little importance. All they want is for the churches to reopen. Fine by me, but why stop at churches? Reopen everything – pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants – and let’s get back to normal. We can pretend Covid-19 doesn’t exist.

Or, we could listen to the patriarch, and recall Corinthians 3:16, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”

In other words: this year, God will come to you.

Then there’s the question of the country’s huge diaspora, which usually returns for Easter. They have been told to stay away, but will they listen? A lack of flights should keep numbers down, but many tens of thousands may still try to make the trip by car.

Romania is at a crucial point in its coronavirus journey. As with many other countries in emerging Europe, the numbers are not yet as horrific as elsewhere (perhaps because of the prevalence of the BCG vaccination: more on that here). But they are still far worse than they should be due to the sorry state of healthcare.

A post-Easter explosion of cases would be fatal to the country in the short, medium and long-term. Missing the most important and beautiful church service of the year is not ideal, neither is missing out on eating and drinking with friends and family.

But it is necessary if we are to bring about an end to Covid-19 in Romania and return to normal life, where we are able to attend church, eat out and visit friends and family. Ideally, the government would put in place a total curfew from next Friday evening to the following Monday morning. In an election year, it will be reluctant to do so.

At a time when we need real leadership and tough decisions, we are not getting anything of the sort.

Photo: Inquam Photos / Alex Nicodim

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16 Comments

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  • Spare us Romanians, Mr Turp, of your all criticism of Romania, of what she does wrong, what she does not, etc. In your own country, the UK, with all its wonderful, amazing, smashing medical system and super, amazingly civilised citizens, people are dying of a rate of 800-900 a day while in Romania, that backward country and with an awful medical system less than 300 people have died so far.
    In the UK 9875 dead out of 67 million population while in Romania 282 out of 19 million population. Mathematically, the British dead are 0.014% of population while in Romania 0.0014%, namely the Corona death rate in the UK is ten times higher than in Romania.

    You are becoming ridiculous with all this continuous criticism of Romania.

    • First line of the third paragraph: “Unfortunately, as with a number of other countries (the UK being a prime example) there is a sizeable minority in Romania which is not taking the lockdown seriously.”

      The UK has got its strategy wrong from the very beginning. But this is an article about Romania, which has also got it wrong by not having stricter lockdown procedures.

      As for comparisons of deaths per head of population, it is far more useful to compare like with like. Romania’s rate of deaths per one million inhabitants (15) is far higher than any other country in Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic it’s 12/1M; Hungary 10/1M; Serbia 8/1M; Poland 5/1M; Bulgaria 4/1M; Ukraine 2/1M; Georgia 0.8/1M. All have far stricter lockdowns than Romania. Serbia will have a complete 60 hour curfew over the Easter weekend, for example.

      • The UK has a rate of mortality 10 times the rate of Romania. 10 TIMES, in spite of GPs NOT reporting hundreds of Corona deaths of people in care homes. And Romania death rate of 15 per million is not far from of Czech Republic or Hungary, who are not subject to Emerging Europe and other Western European media relentless criticism and negative propaganda.
        Needless to mention, I have not read any critical article about the huge rate of Corona mortality in the UK. Maybe you should look closer to home than blabbing how bad Romanians are.

  • […] We have taken a look at the figures for the 23 countries of emerging Europe and complied the following table, based on the number of deaths per one million inhabitants. It is noticeable that those countries where lockdowns were put in place early (such as Bulgaria, Georgia and Slovakia), and where they are strictly enforced so far have far lower death rates than those where they are not (such as Romania, whose relaxed approach to lockdown our editor wrote about at the weekend). […]

  • […] România este într-un punct crucial în lupta sa împotriva coronavirusului. La fel ca în multe alte țări din Europa Centrală și de Est, numerele nu sunt încă la fel de groaznice ca în alte părți. Dar sunt mult mai proaste decât ar fi putut fi dacă sistemul de sănătate era mai bine pregătit. O explozie a numărului de cazuri după Paște ar fi fatală pentru România pe termen scurt, mediu și lung. În mod ideal, guvernul ar impune restricție totală de circulație de vineri seară până luni dimineața. Într-un an electoral, acesta va fi reticent să recurgă la o astfel de măsură. (Emerging Europe) […]

  • I absolutely agree that this is un unfair, negative portrayal of Romanians. I think the author who lives in Bucharest has in fact internalised all the negative stereotypes Romanians always say about other Romanians. But he should know better since he is not only a voice speaking about Romania but also inherently for Romania. Perpetuating negative stereotypes will only end up turning Emerging Europe against a large part of Romanian population. The reality is that even if Romanians might say over a pint that ‘Romanians are unreliable and undisciplined’ they get frustrated when they hear the same things in foreign press.

    Indeed, the article is very wrong. Romanian police issued large amount of fines and almost all Romanians respect the strict rules of the lockdown. Results are there for those who want to see it: the number of deaths and infected has only very steadily risen and it is at a very low level compared to other ‘civilized’ Western countries. Most chances are at the moment that Romanian will reach the peak soon, at a very low level of deaths.

  • Well… so many fallacies I have not seen for a long, long time. Where should I start?
    1. Appeal to emotion: “Indeed, Easter – which in the Orthodox world falls next weekend – causes me great concern. I fear that many people … the quicker this nightmare will be over and we can resume something that at least resembles normal life….”
    2. Slippery slope, so many slippery slopes, in an half page article, amazing: “Should the police intervene, Romania’s religious far-right will cry martyrdom.”
    3. Personal incredulity: “Romania’s government has not had a good crisis so far… I hope I am wrong, but the crowds we will undoubtedly see at markets and supermarkets next weekend could be the beginning of a new wave of infection,” Really? Do I feel a scent of Begging the question perfume here somewhere? I hope… undoubtedly…the beginning
    4. Appeal to nature: “(it’s always easy to bend the rules in a country that takes pride in ignoring them).” This is not our nature, I am sorry to disappoint you.
    5. Anecdotal: “I have left my apartment on just four occasions…” Oh that barbe..cue, I just love classical English!!!
    6. The texas sharpshooter: “country that takes pride in ignoring them …Romania which is not taking the lock down seriously… Romania’s government has not had a good crisis so far”
    Should I continue?
    By the way Easter is not the big one, Christmas is. Now an ad interim conclusion, if I would have written something like this I would have probably been expelled from school.

    • I fully agree with you, Bogdan.
      Easter was quiet, with no people on streets in Central Bucharest so all Turp’s blabbing on Romanians not taking the lockdown seriously, people being undisciplined, taking pride in ingnoring laws, etc, etc, proved nothing but turp-itudes. The reality is completely different.
      If some need a people with total disregard for lockdowns, undisciplined and careless, they should not look further than Turp’s own country, the UK.
      My sons who live in London and Yorkshire are shocked how strict is the lockdown in Romania. But it works, Romania has 415 people deaod of Corona while Britain has 15000.

  • […] De când România a instituit restricții la scară națională pe 17 martie am ieșit din apartament doar în patru ocazii: trei pentru a cumpăra mâncare și una pentru a ridica un nou grătar pe care l-am comandat online (încercați să-mi spuneți că grătarul nu este un articol esențial). Copiii au ieșit doar o dată, ca să cumpere pâine și lapte de la un magazin local, se confesează Craig Turp în Emerging Europe. […]

  • […] De când România a instituit restricții la scară națională pe 17 martie am ieșit din apartament doar în patru ocazii: trei pentru a cumpăra mâncare și una pentru a ridica un nou grătar pe care l-am comandat online (încercați să-mi spuneți că grătarul nu este un articol esențial). Copiii au ieșit doar o dată, ca să cumpere pâine și lapte de la un magazin local, se confesează Craig Turp în Emerging Europe. […]

  • […] De când România a instituit restricții la scară națională pe 17 martie am ieșit din apartament doar în patru ocazii: trei pentru a cumpăra mâncare și una pentru a ridica un nou grătar pe care l-am comandat online (încercați să-mi spuneți că grătarul nu este un articol esențial). Copiii au ieșit doar o dată, ca să cumpere pâine și lapte de la un magazin local, se confesează Craig Turp în Emerging Europe. […]

  • Fine article, Mr. Turp. The Romanian government is not setting an example for people to follow. The Romanian Fiscal authorities still require people to come to their office in person to handle routine measures handled via the phone or online, almost anywhere in the world, even outside of the time of a health crisis. The jumbled mixed message they sent seems to imply you can not do your business as usual but they can making one think perhaps they don’t really take it too seriously at all and are just saving face. I’ve seen numerous pictures on Facebook forums of crowded buses of largely mask-free people packed like sardines. The comments I saw below changed a little the direction of my reply but it seems worth saying. A significant population of Romanians feel very free to criticize other countries that they do not even live in but somehow think it’s unfair to offer even gentle criticism of a country that one does live in, likely pays taxes in, even if they were not born there. This is a type of ethnic discrimination that should not be stood for under any circumstances and certainly in the name of politeness. Imagine if one were to shoot down everything a Romanian says in another country that may be of good and valid point and said respectfully and may well be a contribution to that society and instead a point made about the failings of their own country instead. This mentality is a big part of what holds Romania back. This Easter let us remember that we are all individuals , of the same human race, with the same God-given rights to thoughts, comments and suggestions about absolutely anything.

    • Totally agree. I have lived in countries with much worse people, but e ven those people have some concept of the Golden Rule. Even in inner city Baltimore or London, UK people get that if “you diss my mother, I’ll diss your mother” and “if you knife me, i’ll knife you.” Here in Romania, it seems that some believe they can do and say what they want but how dare someone else do the same. The number of times I have to stand up to these imbeciles is absolutely amazing – I want to take them to court for slander for making me have to be an aggressive jerk just to defend my basic rights.

  • I see that people just jump on Mr. Turp for no good reason. Did you not read the part where he clearly said the UK is rubbish in its response to Covid-19? Let’s be honest here: while there have been some positives (this country is LUCKY to have Klaus Iohannis as President; police have issued fines as someone said. etc.), can anyone really debate Mr. Turp’s comparison of Romania to surrounding countries such as Serbia and Hungary? Let’s have some bloody standards here, peoples. So what if Romania is handling it better than Sweden, UK and the great US of bloody America? How about we compare ourselves to Australia, NZ, Jordan, Estonia, Iceland and Taiwan (and please spare me the “its easier to do on small islands” argument, I get that our numbers can’t be that low. But they can be lower than they currently are with just a but of bloody respect. Yes, in my lovely area of Piata bloody Domenii, only 10% of people in my opinion are disrespecting the rules. But that is 10% too many. I get that in places like Canada, its way above 10%. But how about places like Australia where I reckon its like 0.0001%. This nonsense relaxation now that it is May 15 will only serve to slow down any recovery. My opinion: Romania is not a total joke with this (there arer worse places to be) but some peoples attitudes are garbage. Not bloody good enough, mate. This country had a chance to do this very very right and failed to do so, they could have looked really good worldwide. Instead I cant leave my home because I have to battle someone with the “dont you bloody understand you cant stand in the bloody doorway” spiel. Way too often. And they laugh in my face like im the one on drugs. Go figure.

    In addition (and this is everywhere I have lived, not only Romania, before you people jump on me to go back to my own bloody country) too many people here get defensive when a foreigner calls a spade a spade. We have the same rights to note both the positives and negatives of Romania just like the locals do. Freedom of speech, mate, its not Ceasescu times and its not modern North Korea. Deal with it, peoples.

    • On the positive side, I just read that Romania was the first in this part of Europe to close schools until September. Some of these positive decisions give us hope and make us realise other countries are even more rubbish, at least with certain aspects. (Note this is NOT an excuse to defend Romania’s or any countries’ bad practices – ie “stop complaining, we have police and schools doing the right thing, so you can;t complain about all the negative aspects”)