As the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the world, Romania was the latest European Union country to declare the state of emergency due to the COVID-19. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis declared the state of emergency on 16th March for 30 days with the possibility of prolonging in accordance with the situation. National Committee for Special Emergency Situation has taken restrictive measures for national security and health protection of the state. The most important ordinance was the restricted movement of people. Romania has taken the lessons of other countries very seriously.
Although the first case in Romania was confirmed on 26th February, Romania was acting slowly at the beginning of the pandemic. Romania has dealt with its own version of the Bergamo crisis. In Romanian Suceava was located more than a quarter of all cases. Military Ordinance No. 6 put the county of Suceava and 8 nearby villages under quarantine. Military Ordinance No. 7 put under quarantine also Tandarei city in Ialomita county. Due to the confirmed case in the senate, all government members and PNL members self-quarantined and were working remotely.
Once the country decided to deal with the pandemic National Committee has taken the fast course of strong actions. On 22nd March Romania has seen the first fatality which was followed by Military Ordinance No.3. Following the deterioration of the situation on 24th March Romania went on a nationwide lockdown following the previous 21st March restriction of free movement. People were banned from leaving the house without a signed statement and ID card. Police officers and military controls assured compliance and issued steep fines in case of lockdown violation. On 24th March, the cost of fines exceeded EUR 78 million. According to the authorities and their experience, a significant portion of the fines will never be paid. Restriction allowed people to go outside only for food, pharmaceuticals, and working reasons. National Committee for Special Emergency Situation has counted with three possible scenarios and provided 15 points guidelines.
Romania has taken into account the experience of Italy and Spain. To protect its elderly population Romania decided that citizens over 65 would be allowed to go out only from 11 am to 1 pm. Ordinance also canceled all internal flights. Military ordinance No. 4 prohibited international flights and introduced fines for movement restriction violations. However, chart flights taking seasonal workers from Romania were possible.
Concerns and fear of repeating the Italian scenario in 20 million countries were in place as Romania has severe issues with brain drain in the healthcare system. The healthcare system is understaffed by approximately 40,000 medical personnel. Romania spends only 5% of GDP on healthcare and it is one of the poorest in Europe. Furthermore, the majority of medical personnel belong to the older population. The situation of the healthcare system in Romania is much more serious than Italy and Spain. The predictions for COVID-19 pandemic in Romania were very troubling. Medical help for problems caused by COVID-19 has been declared free even for Romanians from the diaspora (working abroad and not contributing to the Romanian healthcare system) and foreigners dwelling within the borders infected with the virus. Any steps to prevent the spread of infection must have been taken no matter the budget cost.
Many Romanians have roots in the countryside and at the beginning of the pandemic, many people left cities for isolation in nature or went back home to elderly relatives. The migration of the population from the cities to their families in rural areas posed a real threat of coronavirus spreading among the elderly population in the villages. Romanian villages are very isolated and out of reach of underfunded and understaffed healthcare system. Romania has been slow in the testing at the beginning of the pandemic.
Romania started with the epidemiological screening in special medical tents and hospitals for infectious diseases. Romania decided to test people with symptoms and those who visited risky regions or were in direct contact with the infected persons. Romania bought tests from South Korea. Due to private medical providers testing capacity increased and allowed to test workers in the frontline as well.
Romania’s government bought masks and equipment from Turkey and South Korea for governmental forces. The Nagumo Medical Supply SRL provided 90 million of face masks. The Globalworth foundation provided masks for frontline workers.
Romania also received a donation of USD 800,000 worth of medical equipment from the USA. Financial help and medical equipment were donated for example by famous Romanian tennis player Simone Halep too. Even Pope Francis I. donated equipment to Romania´s Lombardy.
Under the circumstances and severity of threat for Romanian security, COVID-19 became a reason for strict preventive restrictions. Romania has taken strong measures against spread of the infection via several military ordinances. Romania closed the small border crossings on 17th March and provided repatriation for its citizens from Hungary. Despite Romania understaffing in the healthcare system, a government-provided team of 7 medical workers as an aid for Italy. Otherwise, Romania put the lockdown on the export of the medical equipment and personnel. As for the general underfunding of the healthcare system, Romania received help and finance mainly from the non-governmental sector, individuals, communities, and companies. These benefactors provided free of charge face masks, accommodation for medical and security force personnel, food packages, and other forms of solidarity in the sectors and matters where official authorities failed to provide the help.
Among the first ordinances, there were restrictions: closing of the schools (all levels from nursery up to universities) and suspensions of all flights to Italy. The education was then provided via Teleschool (TV program). As well Romania banned all outdoor and indoor activities for more than 1000 people later for more than 100, 50 and then completely. Another ordinance contained the closure of restaurants, hotels, cafes, clubs, etc. Followed by military ordinance limiting the number of people allowed together at the public to maximally 3 and curfew 10 pm to 6 am. Romania continued with gradually closing borders and prohibition of medical stuff export for the next 6 months. Another preventive measure was the ban on all public events. However, outside open markets remained. The government also allowed travelling for seasonal workers to Germany and some other countries.
One of the important measures was mandatory protective equipment as face masks, gloves, etc. Unlike in other European countries, the obligation of wearing the face mask is posed by individual municipalities. Thus, it is not nationally wide restriction. Companies and state agencies are obliged to provide protective equipment for its workers though. The government did not pose the obligation of wearing masks nationally due to the fear of shortages and complaints.
Some people argued for even stronger restrictions and people started to wear homemade face mask voluntarily.
Following the crisis prices of goods are rising. In order to preserve the strategic interests of the state, the Romanian government promised to secure stock of food. One of the governmental steps concerned the capped prices for medical equipment, food, and public utility services. Romania banned the export of strategic food supplies as grain, cereal, sugar, oil, flour, biscuits, etc.
On April 24, Romania has more than 10 000 confirmed cases, 552 fatalities, and 2 500 recovered patients. On April 27 Romania has registered more than 11 300 confirmed cases. Numbers are high but did not follow the worst catastrophic scenario. Preventive measures and restrictions worked.
As time passes and the biggest danger of the healthcare system collapse is not the imminent threat Romanian government follows steps of other European countries and talks about relaxation and focus on economic recovery.
The latest plan for easing the restrictions was announced by the president for 15 May. Relaxation will proceed gradually with consideration to the various age groups and situations as well as respecting recommendations of the European Commission. Masks will remain mandatory as well as the ban on public events. The first relaxations would be re-opening the schools and some economic activities. Recently the government denied the school reopening for this academic year.
Romania is now working on the Phased Relaxation Plan. As a result of the relaxation and end of the national lockdown from May 15, Romania will make face masks mandatory in the transport and public spaces. President predicts that face masks will be mandatory till the next year. As long as the threat of disease prevails.
In the first phase of relaxation permission for professional fishermen, beekeepers, car repair-shops will take place. Then all economic activities connected with agriculture will be allowed. Movement of persons of the age over 65 shall be allowed regardless of time but strictly for the purpose of travel to the workplace and household.
Romanian economic aid generally consists of postponing the payment of CAS, CAST, CAM for three months, availability of fast loans, finances from World Bank, Labor code flexibility for remote work and tax incentives.
Romanian prime minister Ludovic Orban met with the representatives of Tripartite Council for Social Dialogue on 17 March in order to issue economic and social measures to mitigate the effects of COVID 19. The main objectives for the negotiation were job preservation, maintaining the viability of economic sectors, and preserving the economic activities as much as possible. Romanian government decided to take measures and intervene to keep the employment, increase the liquidity of companies and support payment of technical unemployment by the companies in the case their activities were temporarily suspended due to state restrictions of the emergency state. As well the government declared the extension of the deadline for local taxes. The reason was the reduction of the interaction of citizens with the state institutions.
Romanian government committed to foster the production capacities of strategic economical actors by providing protective equipment and disinfectants as well as the necessity of application of the protective measures at the workplaces to protect personnel. Health Ministry dedicated EUR 2 billion to provide free medication and equipment. The government also confirmed state aid to railway company CFR MARFA and 60 € million for Tarom Airline.
State also waived the payment of social security contributions for employees in tourism, transport, and entertainment – sectors significantly hit by emergency restrictions. People in self-quarantine will receive financial aid from the state budget and if the crisis continues for more than three months there will be suspended installments on mortgage loans. For employees in vulnerable sectors government waived the duty of income taxation.
Textile factories belong to the significant sector of the Romanian industry. The revenues and production have been immensely affected due to the lack of raw material import from China and the loss of Italian customers. The decrease in the textile industry is predicted approximately by 40%.
Other serious problems await local businesses. Romanian government promised support and activated EUR 400 million aid from the World Bank to help local businesses. Cooperation of Ministry of Labor and Ministry of Health will continue to work on minimalization of the losses, providing health services and sustain the payment of technical unemployment for all employers forced to reduce or interrupt their economic activities during the state of emergency. The military ordinance also allows the suspension of credits for individuals as well as companies, loans without interests, no penalties for fiscal debts during the time of state emergency plus 30 days after. The state postponed payment of the rent for SMEs, lawyers, dentists, etc. Rent will be paid after the crisis. The government also confirmed reimbursement of VAT up to 1.87 € billion to allow companies to benefit from the working capital.
National Bank of Romania lowered interests by 0,5 % and is determined to provide liquidity to the companies. As well bank offers the possibility to purchase lei-denominated governmental securities and provides financing of loans for corporations and individual.
According to the first surveys, 60% of SMEs expect full employment even after the crisis. Only 64% of SMEs confirms to be significantly affected. During the lockdown already 250 000 jobs were lost due to the crisis.
Romania has so far succeeded to slow the spread of disease and prevent shut down of the healthcare system. Economical recovery will be a hard task, the same as for all other countries around the world.
Despite these unknowns, one thing is clear. Romania has strong connections to the western countries and dwells on the feeling of belonging and solidarity to the western democratic world. After all, Romanians have their own experience with eastern influences and communist totality not so long time ago. Their strong relationship with the USA and commitment to the EU values and cooperation can be detected in their attitude and steps during a crisis. Symbolical gestures of cooperation, belonging and solidarity with Italy as well as coordination and following EU recommendations, providing transport corridors for other EU supplies and seasonal workers. These are marks of the Romanian strong effort of belonging to the western values and policy.
Written by Lenka Martínková, April 2020.