Contributions from Romania

Responses to social isolation in Romania

Author: Anda Becut, Lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest. You can contact Anda at andabecut@yahoo.com.

Fieldsite: Romania

The crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic has also spread to Romania, leading to the government declaring a state of emergency, which was instituted in the country by the Decree no. 195/March 16th, 2020.

However, the movement of the public had been limited sometime before this, and social distancing and isolation measures had been put in place since the 8th of March, when any organisations undertaking activities that involved more than 1000 individuals were prohibited from operating. Even before then, some people had voluntarily gone into self-isolation and some employers had decided to ask their employees to work from home. Romanian citizens returning from the regions of Veneto and Lombardy (themselves heavily affected by the virus at the time) were put into ‘institutionalised quarantine’ starting the 23rd of February, a measure that has since been extended to  Romanians who came from anywhere within Italy or other affected countries. Currently, institutionalised quarantine measures apply to all Romanians coming from the ‘red zone’ (Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, UK, Netherland, Spain, United States of America, Turkey). All other Romanians returning from abroad have to follow home isolation rules. [1]

From the perspective of returning migrant workers, who had been working and earning money abroad, the institutionalised quarantining measures as well as their being put into isolation at home were seen as proof that the Romanian government held them in contempt, even though in the past, they had made a major contribution to the national economy through the amounts of money sent yearly to their families in Romania. On the other hand, members of the public living in Romania considered the returning migrant workers to be a threat and a danger to the country’s public health and asked for them to be put into social isolation, as well as asking for measures aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

But since the state of emergency was implemented, social reactions have become more nuanced.  At first, these reactions only appeared among a certain group of people, but afterwards, with social isolation measures implemented at the national level received new reactions and different types of attitudes.  I identified three types of reactions based on the concepts of risk, trust, and fear – three concepts that are important to sociology and anthropology.

  1. The reaction among people who are not aware of the risks, and who don’t trust political decisions or experts. This segment is not afraid, and they don’t obey social rules (including social distancing/isolation).
  2. The reaction among people who are not aware of the risks or are relatively aware of the risks, but are afraid and trust political decisions or experts and do obey social rules (including social distancing/isolation)
  3. The reaction among people who are very much aware of the risks, are afraid and trust political decisions or trust experts and obey social rules (including social distancing/isolation).

These reactions also depend a lot on the economic and financial pressure felt by each segment, as well as on their level of social empathy and solidarity, which can differ based on socio-demographic variables. During the state of emergency, 273,435 fines were recorded – these fines were given out to members of the public for not obeying social distancing rules and this number shows that in general, the reaction from the second and third categories described above was the dominant one in Romanian society.

Any exceptions were identified and presented in the mass media, with a special focus on seniors, Roma people, returning migrant workers, and orthodox Christians (the majority of Romanians belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, though not everyone is religious). Scenes of seniors going to urban food markets without masks or being outside at a time different to the period allocated to them were presented by the mass-media, generating discriminatory attitudes, with some people blaming them for exposing themselves to the risk of catching the virus and therefore for the eventual extension of social isolation measures at the national level. Images of Roma people having parties in their own gardens or front yards or on public streets exacerbated discriminatory attitudes and in some cases led to violent interventions from the police. In the case of returning migrant workers, headlines about people escaping from the public institutions where they had been quarantined are published every day. The news also talks about the damage caused to the infrastructure caused by the people who ‘escaped’ quarantine institutions, bringing into discussion the economic costs of supporting the returning migrant workers during the quarantine period. Mass-media coverage of this has fed some of the discriminatory and stigmatising comments seen on social networks.

As for the orthodox Christians, the issue of closing churches and observing social distancing rules during the Easter period (the most significant Orthodox Christian holiday of the year) has generated two types of reactions. The initial reaction consisted of the public blaming the priests and the Church for not obeying the rules of social distancing, overestimating the risks of Orthodox practitioners spreading the virus during church services. After the Orthodox Church officially confirmed it would adhere to state rules during the pandemic, the focus moved on the priests who were hospitalised after contracting the virus. On social media, people have expressed joy at the thought of some of the priests dying, considering death to be a fitting punishment for not obeying social distancing rules. Again, this is an example of how discrimination has been promoted through media and social networks.

The discussions currently taking place in the public sphere are about the scenarios that will follow the end of the social isolation period. The future also depends on the varying proportions of different attitudes in our society,  or even at the European level.

[1] http://www.cnscbt.ro/index.php/liste-zone-afectate-covid-19/1620-lista-zone-02-04-2020/file