Postcard From Romania

20 August 2021  /  Updated 24 August 2021

by Niculina Florea

A sign points the way to the vaccine clinic at Dracula’s Castle

I am in the lobby scribbling a few lines while my family observes rabbits in a park attached to the hotel. It’s called ‘Magic Land’ (i.e., a few trees carved with human faces or in imitation of characters from fairy tales).

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And yet I can’t quite manage a connection with those peaceful higher frequencies. Maybe for a few fleeting moments, as we do enjoy relative freedom here, but memories of that other world, just two and a half hours’ flight away, haunt me. What’s more – as our leaders have grown fond of reminding us – winter is coming.

For now it’s summer and we are in Romania. After a spring of constant protest in the streets of our cities, the Government rid us of one health minister, only to replace him with another that, by and large, kept his policies. There is however a certain freshness in the air and, one way or the other, most measures have been relaxed.

On the face of it, Romania’s much the same as elsewhere in Europe. Masks are compulsory inside, but not out. Vaccination clinics have popped up like mushrooms in a dark Transylvanian forest. Just yesterday we passed the famous clinic at Dracula’s Castle, promoted across the region with banners (which must’ve cost a pretty penny) bearing the provocative message: “Who’s afraid of a vaccine? Come get it; one sting and you’re immune!”

Even in the middle of a mountainous nowhere, right after the needle-shaped curve of a narrow road crossing the mountain-face from east to west: VACCINATION CLINIC 100m. And lo, there it was! A lonely little wooden cabin, apparently thrown together one night in a desperate hurry, lying between the road and the ravine. What if a traveller from Moldavia to Transylvania (some panjandrum must have fretted) were to feel a sudden urge for a sting right at that improbable chicane? Good preventive thinking. One never knows.

And yet one does, because the bigger urban vaccination sites are every bit as empty. Big banners hung across the boulevards beckon to the population. ‘There is one just across the street… 100m… No need to move far from the safety of your apartment…’ etc., yet people are shunning them. According to reports last month, the country has stopped importing vaccines and even sold a million unused doses to Denmark.

After January’s initial hype, and the jabbing of that narrow category of people who consider themselves vulnerable (mostly the elderly but also some younger people told by the authorities that the onset of diabetes or some heart arrhythmia would mean a danger to their life), the rest of the population began rather blatantly ignoring governmental advice and going about their business as if the pandemic did not exist.

This is how Romanians are. It’s the mentality of a small people at the crossroads of big empires, and more recently at the mercy of Eastern Europe’s most authoritarian communist regime. When confronted with an overwhelming, overpowering threat, the people adapt, hide, or use guerilla tactics, rather than confront the enemy head-on.

My mother tells me that last year, when the authorities forbade religious gathering, the women dressed as nuns in order to gain access to their churches. It’s entirely plausible. There is a monastery in or about every town in Romania, and monastic life still has its pull. When movement between cities or regions was restricted, people exchanged ID cards to reach other towns. While in rural areas, with much less police around, there never really was a lockdown. On a Sunday you can still see elderly peasants jamming the pews of their tiny parish church, with no fear of the terrible disease. To them, it’s a scourge of the ‘civilised’ world. Home-grown greens and meat from animals raised in the open field will protect the country people – that’s their firm conviction.

Of course, there is also the lack of satellite TV. My cousin is a village priest. Of his sizeable flock of some 5000 souls, he has put a total of five in the ground who had death certificates mentioning Covid. As in every small community, my cousin knew them all intimately, and yet he never saw a single symptom of Covid in these five. They were all brought to hospital for various other reasons, before being delivered home in a sealed bag marked “Health hazard, do not open”.

Here, people mourn the dead and move on with their lives. They have to. Life is tough in the countryside and most people do not have the time or sophistication to contest the decisions of authorities they do not fully understand. But they are not to be duped either. Try to enter a church these days with a mask on and see what happens! An old lady will likely remind you that this is disrespectful towards God, as the surrounding icons will demonstrate.

Unlike last summer when everyone was incredibly disciplined – wearing their masks indoors and out, even in my tiny hometown where, by then, infection was unheard of – this year there is hardly a covered face in sight. What happened? Well, in the meantime a lot of people got the disease (or so they were told) and learnt that its seriousness varied according to whether they went to hospital or stayed at home. Last year, at-home isolation was not allowed, until the Constitutional Court ruled that particular restriction unconstitutional. Then the authorities said you could stay at home – as long as you were asymptomatic. A lot of people declared themselves asymptomatic even when they were not feeling very well, just to be left to their own devices.

What Romanians had noticed was that the treatment – whatever that may be, nobody having dared ask what medication had been administered – made you rather less well than if you stayed in bed with tea and vitamins. Just about my whole extended family got it, including my mother – she got a positive result from an antibody test five months after she was sick with a day’s fever. Her vaccinated best friend counselled that the antibody level from natural infection was very low and that the one from the vaccine is much better. Mother was undeterred. Years ago, doctors told her that they had to operate on an autoimmune thyroid or else… And the galbladder too. They didn’t and she’s fine, thank God – in great shape for a woman of 70.

On a number of occasions I took the local minibus. Together with a gentle instruction to “wait until every one is seated and if there’s room, no need to pay for the kid”, the driver advised passengers before starting the engine to “keep masks to hand, in case anyone checks the bus”. If you’re caught here the fine is 25,000 Ron (about €550), a huge amount for us.

Currently around 30% of Romanians have received at least one jab. We’re second from Europe’s bottom, above Bulgaria with 16%. Interestingly, we were counting 50 new cases a day until the end of July, a number which has now increased to 300. This is still a far cry from Belgium (where I live), which has nearly half of Romania’s population but where figures this summer have not dipped below 1,000 a day. Last summer, when there was no vaccine, it was around 250 a day. Today it’s just above 1,700 and rising, with over 70% of the Belgian population jabbed.

When I talk to people around me in my hometown, except for the elderly, almost no one appears to be vaccinated, by which I mean really vaccinated. It’s a guess, but I would say about one in two of our 30% has not been properly jabbed. “Pe alături vă rog!” (One on the side please!) is apparently the expression to use when you’re alone with the nurse behind a closed curtain. It’s starting to come out. An idiot who was registered as jabbed two weeks previously in a big town declared to border guards that he hadn’t been in the country since last year. Generally, the pretend-jabbed are scared of the repercussions if caught, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the statistics.

Meanwhile, a covid pass is on the table. Parliament is waiting to resume work in September before voting on it. I believe the conclusion is foregone. Authorities across the planet have hardly taken a single step backwards during this pandemic, right? Except for brief moments of respite, the plan has only advanced.

What is to be done? It’s the question on everyone’s mind. But my countrymen do not seem terribly preoccupied. There is always a way. We will adapt. Centuries of foreign conquest, of persecution and struggle taught us that adaption is the only way and that the children must survive. The parents will make the necessary sacrifices. The next generation is always the priority here because people know it’s the best way to defy any evolutionary challenge. He who saves his offspring prevails.

Niculina Florea works for the E.U. in Brussels.