From the Editors

Romania, where Covid-19 restrictions are modest, but people protest anyway

romania covid protests

There is no Covid-19 lockdown in Romania. The terraces of cafes and restaurants are full, shops are open, parks teem with parents and children, and the country’s ski resorts are enjoying a bumper year. And yet as alarming numbers of people become infected with coronavirus and die, others are protesting – some violently – against what very loose restrictions there are.

As predictable as night following day, a protest against Covid-19 restrictions in the Romanian capital Bucharest turned violent in the early hours of March 30, when police were attacked by demonstrators defying a curfew imposed to prevent the further spread of coronavirus infections.

At least 12 policemen were injured in the clashes in Bucharest, and almost 200 demonstrators – many thought to be football hooligans – arrested.

In the northeastern town of Bacău, protesters went so far as to occupy the forecourt of a hospital, calling doctors and nurses caring for the sick “assassins”.

In the western city of Timișoara, one of the worst affected by a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, demonstrators picketed the home of the mayor, Dominic Fritz, a German, shouting xenophobic slogans and demanding he resign and leave Romania.

Romania has seen an alarming surge in new infections in recent weeks, particularly in Timișoara and the capital, and yet the country’s government – spooked by anti-restriction sentiment stirred up by a right-wing political party, the Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR) – has so far been reluctant to take the kind of decisive action necessary to halt the rise in cases and ease the burden on Romania’s creaking health system.

On March 29, 175 people died with coronavirus in Romania. More than 1,400 are in intensive care.

No lockdown

What makes Romania’s “anti-restriction” protests baffling is the simple fact that Romania’s restrictions are not particularly restrictive.

What appears to have set off the current protests is the modest (if admittedly arbitrary and poorly explained) requirement for shops in towns and cities which have a high rate of infection (most of them) to close at 6pm from Friday to Sunday, while a curfew is in place on those days from 8pm to 5am (from Monday to Thursday, shops can remain open until 8pm, and curfew does not begin until 10pm).

That, and the ongoing requirement to wear protective face masks in public spaces.

Nevertheless, restaurants, bars and cafes can operate outdoor seating areas with no limit on capacity (and with no requirement for customers to wear masks). This past weekend – the first truly spring-like weekend of the year – they were packed, with locals enjoying an al fresco lunch in the warm sunshine.

Romania’s ski resorts have been open throughout the winter, enjoying a bumper season with resorts closed elsewhere in Europe, and there are no restrictions on travel within or outside of the country. Although self-isolation is meant to be obligatory for travelers returning from some destinations, there is no expensive, compulsory quarantine as in other countries, such as the UK.

A full lockdown it most certainly is not.

Anti-mask, anti-restrictions, anti-vax

The country’s vaccination roll-out has been decent if far from exemplary. So far, 10 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, just below the European Union average of 10.8 per cent.

On March 15, vaccines were opened up to the general population, and around one million people are on waiting lists. At the current rate of vaccination the vast majority of these people would have received at least one dose by the end of May.

This begs the question: who will Romania vaccinate then?

Not many of those demonstrating on the streets of its towns and cities, which underlines the futility of their protest. The only way out of the Covid-19 nightmare – restrictions and all – is mass vaccination, and yet many these people appear to be not only anti-restrictions, but also anti-vaccination.

Such a lack of logic and understanding is bewildering, and suggests that the protests are motivated purely by politics.

The visible presence of a radical trade unionist, Ion Rădoi, at the protests in Bucharest is further evidence of that.

Rădoi leads the Bucharest metro workers’ union, which on March 26 brought the Romanian capital to a standstill with a wildcat strike against plans by the country’s reformist transport minister to end the union’s monopoly on advertising and commercial space on the metro.

For reasons that are inexplicable, for decades the proceeds from advertising billboards and commercial space on the metro system have not gone to Metrorex, the heavily-subsidised company that operates the metro, but to the union.

An unholy coalition of trouble makers

Bringing together this coalition of Covid sceptics, anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, radical unions, football hooligans and lifelong troublemakers is AUR.

Although it claims not to be behind the organisation of the protests, AUR’s leader George Simion was a prominent presence at the demonstrations.

Before entering politics Simion was previously a leading figure in one of the many ultras groups that follows the Romanian national football team, and regularly clashed with police at matches.

The vehemently nationalist party, founded just over a year ago, was the real surprise of last December’s parliamentary election, taking almost 10 per cent of the vote on a platform that preached Covid sceptisism alongside traditionally nationalist tropes such as the unification of Romania and Moldova (an utter nonsense: Romania cannot afford Moldova, while – perhaps more importantly – the vast majority of Moldovans do not want unification).

Nevertheless, AUR last week announced plans to begin operations in Moldova, albeit without Simion, who is banned from entering the country.

With Moldova seemingly heading for a snap election at some stage over the next few months it will be eyeing seats in Moldova’s parliament too.

Making a great deal of fuss over some very modest restrictions can only boost its profile further and may attract some of Moldova’s Covid sceptics to its ranks.

AUR wears its nationalism as a badge of honour, a symbol of patriotism.

But as the prefect of Bucharest Alin Stoica said this morning, “those who do not respect the restrictions, placing the health of Romanians in jeopardy, are not patriots. Those who instigate violence against the police are not patriots. Those who care more about promoting themselves than protecting Romanians are not patriots.”

In the meantime, expect Romania’s “anti-restriction” protests to continue, and, alas, until the country’s government finds the courage to impose the kind of real lockdown measures that are so desperately needed (and explain, coherently, why they are doing so), the number of infections and deaths to rise.

Photo: Octav Ganea / Inquam Photos

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  • These are not the protests of “fools” but of desperate and passionate people, unable to get urgent medical treatment for serious and chronic conditions, despite these units of the hospital being open, struggling to put food on the table to feed their starving children, tired of government Incompetence, authoritarianism and hypocrisy and who value freedom, democracy and proportion. Values that people fought for in blood, just over 30 years ago.

    The silent majority, just reached breaking point. That is the real story here, for any good journalist. If the politicians and media had listened to their pain and treated them like humans instead of cattle, we would not be in this position.

    People want a balanced democratic approach between protecting those at risk from covid19 (typically 60+ with 2 or 3 pre-existing conditions) and protecting those at risk from poverty and despair.

    These are NOT mutually exclusive, with the right targeted policies, such as prioritising home food and medical deliveries for those at risk, subsidizing PCR tests for those wishing to visit at risk people and keeping stores open longer rather than cramming people in to fewer hours, making social distancing more difficult.

    If the real “fools” in the media and politics actually did their jobs, instead of relentless fear and smear propaganda, we would not be in this mess!

  • in hope someone will read this, im just gonna say: what they did regarding the doctors were awful and generally the fact that they got agressive was low. also i feel like masks and vaccines shouldn t be protested about. however, i get why they are against the curfew. our government has no fucking clue why we have a curfew. they just saw other countries do it so they decided to do it too, while clearly, it doesnt work for us.

  • I have just read this article and I feel deeply saddened to witness this type of never-ending propaganda, especially in an article written in English which can influence the international public opinion.

    What the author conveniently forgets to mention is the fact that our state hospitals are almost shut for the people with chronic conditions, who will inevitably lose their window of opportunity to be treated and become collateral victims of these restrictions. In November alone, they represented two thirds of the excess mortality and nobody in power did anything to change that situation.

    The restaurants and bars have been shut for most of the restrictive period, pushing this sector into a deep crisis. The state promised to compensate the small business owners, but once again failed to do so. Out of 22000 requests, only 3000 were fulfilled, leading to people becoming bankrupt or even committing suicide.

    People were pushed into poverty, children missed their education and the young people have given a year of their lives and sometimes even their mental health to save others and all they’ve heard was how horrible and incompetent they are. Nobody in charge of this country took any responsibility for anything that’s happened so far, but moreover they have been seen on multiple occasions disrespecting the rules they have imposed.

    Last, but not least, it was the government’s responsibility to increase the number of ICU beds, but the minister of health seemed too preoccupied posting mockery on Facebook, such as wishing the death of the “non-essentials”.

  • It’s a strange argument to say that those for civil liberties, protecting the poor and against authoritarianism are “far right extremists”, while those in favour of locking healthy people in their houses against their will are beacons of liberalism and democracy! There is no democratic mandate for lockdowns in Romania as the recent election results showed, nor do we have as large an elderly population as the UK and Italy, where sometimes they have been required. Lockdowns come with huge economic, health and social costs, it should always be a last resort, as the WHO advised.

    What people want is proportion – policies that respect liberties and people’s livelihoods, to expand hospital capacities (as promised), to help protect those at risk (e.g. priorities for home deliveries, subsidized PCR tests for people who wish to visit those at risk) and for politicians to do their jobs and treat the people they serve with respect.

    Agreed “ARomanian” – this article is extremely biased and selective, especially when people do not know the local context. Journalists with more empathy and curiousity that actually interviewed people at the protest quickly discovered that the vast majority were protesting about people missing non-covid19 life-saving operations, job losses and poverty, an aggressive police presence on the streets, government incompetence, arrogance and hypocrisy, arbitrary restrictions with no scientific basis and disrespecting democracy. This was not about shops shutting earlier! Plus, people explicitly condemned the politicization of the protest and wanted AUR out of it.

    Of course, people should not resort to violence, nobody condones these actions of a minority but nor should they resort to locking healthy people down against their will. That is genuine extremism! No matter their party, people want a government that represents the people not represses them. They want journalists that tell the whole truth and not the piece of the picture that suits them. They want a Romania where we balance safety, freedom and jobs.

  • I really think this article is simply ignorant and meant to induce some kind of hate/attention/confirmation bias. It excludes a lot of information and simply focuses on the hooligans/extremists that protest the restrictions. Keep in mind that 2 weeks ago the restrictions were: cannot travel oustide between 22:00-5:00 without affidavit, bars and restaurants close indoor at 3/1000 incidence in the city, mask mandatory indoors and outdoors.
    Firstly, the situation heated up in Timisoara, where after the cases started to rise, the city entered full lockdown, meaning that you can get oustide only with an affidavit. After 2 weeks in lockdown, the cases were still on the rise, so, in the local council, the cvorum for keeping the lockdown was not met and the restrictions were raised. When hearing this, Mr Arafat the state secretary stepped in and ordered to keep the lockdown temporarly until further notice. Together with this mess, Timisoara mayor, Fritz, claimed on social media that the upper politicians forced him to keep lockdowns in villages based on political criteria and condemned transparency. All this stuff is very important because what it has done, was loosen population’s credibility in the restrictions, the government, etc.
    As the cases started to rise in the country, the ministry met and decided the new lockdown methods which mainly focused on night restrictions by lowering the hour for night restrictions from 22:00 to 20:00 (depending on regions). Also, the markets should close on weekend at 18:00. A lot of people felt that these restrictions are not that effective and only play with people’s nerves.
    So this was the cherry on the pie, which led to a lot of people going out in the streets. It is true that lots of protesters are low-tier, uneducated people which unfortunately go to extremes and claim the inexistence of the virus, use curse words, blame the doctors,politicians and so on and they want the lives before pandemic. It is true that they don’t wear masks/ practice social distancing at the protest and that is really bad and it’s their lives put in danger. But before judging them, think about the fact that their salary is low or maybe nonexistent now, they don’t know how to properly use a computer to work from home and a lot of them focus on services to which they are restricted nowdays. Also, by making a paralel with other protests that happened during panedmic (not going to give names), I just can’t stand the mass hypocrisy of supporting them and ignoring the fact that we’re in a pandemic.
    Just as a personal opinion, I really think the night restrictions are good in winter because of the cold weather, but in the spring/summer a lot of people just want to party outdoors safely and this restrictions only force them to sleep overnight (from personal experience). I really think that the restrictions should focus on controls at the workplace to enforce masks, limiting people in the malls, supermarkets, buses, etc.
    My father died of COVID and I can guarantee you he did not take it after 22:00 but he caught it at the workplace, and so many of my neighbours/acquaintances.

    • I am very sorry to hear of your loss @florinboldor123. You seem like a very good, fair and intelligent person and I am sure he was too. I really admire the courage, compassion and balance in your post. ?

      A lot of people have suffered these last 12 months, from the pandemic and from poverty. I think as a country, we need to have compassion for both and try and find a way through. People at these protests know the risk of fines, social smears and infection is high, they are there as a last resort. I do not think protesting in a pandemic is the best way but when they ignore the election results, support the big corporates, instead of the people suffering and your family is desperate and your hope is fading, many would be tempted to do the same. Of course, the violence, crazy conspiracy theorists and lack of social distancing is not acceptable but can’t we hate the sin and love the sinner? Plus, I am looking at the protests on TV now and they are all kneeled down saying “The Lord’s Prayer”, hardly violent is it?

      As one heart-breaking 82 year old said: “I have a pension of 200 lei a month (about 40 euros). I consider myself blessed because I have enough for a little bread and tea but others in my community are really struggling to feed their families. I just wish people could work, so they can have a little money. The last time he came out in the streets was during the revolution. He was prepared to risk his life then and now, to help others. Should we shame him?

      One person wrote on facebook “I hope these protests idiots starve to death.” This is the level of discourse we are at. Well, some of these people may be a bit rough around the edges and don’t always have the education or eloquence to make detailed policy critiques or the discipline to follow rules but please also remember when we were in lockdown, they were the people that risked infection to bring food to our houses, fix our plumbing and deliver our parcels. Plus, I see a lot of families here too, so the journalists depiction is again inaccurate.

      Maybe things are not so simple but personally, if I was in charge, I would have kept most things open, so people can work and feed their families. Instead of shutting the schools and pay for a parent to stay at home (a huge cost when most are low risk), I would have given this state money to pensioners, who are most at risk, so they can afford home food and medical deliveries and take a taxi, rather than a bus, to limit their risk of infection. Any children of high-risk parents could have learnt from home and been giving a tablet.

      I would have given paid medical leave off work to those with high-risk comorbidities, such as hypertension, COPD and renal disease. I would have kept stores open longer and staggered work start and end times to lower congestion and improve social distancing. I would have improved doctor salaries and ICU capacities and I would have kept restaurants open the whole time, as it is better people socialize in a safe and controlled environment than at people’s homes. I would also have subsidized tests and treatments. The earlier we act, the better chance people have. From talking to people, I think these proposals would have had good public support.

      I am not an expert on Romanian politics but I would make a good guess that one of the reasons people are drawn to AUR and moving away from other parties is that they actually try to listen and fight for these people, instead of judging and ignoring them. So, if journalists and politicians do not like AUR, then perhaps start listening to the struggles of their voters and find policies to help them, rather than belittling them and angering them more. The middle class may easily be swayed by social smears and shaming of “fools” but if you are poor and struggling you have bigger problems than likes on facebook and what strangers think of you – it’s basic Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.

      So, let’s all be real patriots, listen, help our neighbors, in whatever way we can and come together as a country!

  • Sorry but no, these are not modest or reasonable restrictions.

    Curfews solve absolutely nothing as there are very few people outside after dark anyway.

    Businesses like restaurants and hotels are closed arbitrarily which makes planning impossible and will lead to a lot of bankruptcies and people getting fired. Nobody is asking you to visit these places if you think they’re a high risk.

    Masking outdoors for the most part solves nothing. If you think being asked to wear a mask at 5AM when the street is empty is modest, you have a totally different definition of modest.

    A lot of these measures are unconstitutional as they restrict individual rights without a proper law passed by the Parliament.

    Entire towns being closed for weeks and people forced to stay indoors is not modest. Period.

    The restrictions make absolutely no distinction between those at risk and those who are likely to only experience regular flu symptoms if they have symptoms at all.