Romania COVID-19 Emergency Response

Reporting date: 9 Oct 2020 
Total cases: 148,886 
Recovered: 114,792 
Active cases: 28,795 
Critical: 613 
Deaths: 5,299 

The first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in Romania in late February. In the weeks that followed, the government introduced a host of preventative measures designed to shield its citizens and increase the capacity of an already fragile healthcare system. Despite these efforts, a state of emergency was declared less than a month later, striking the country’s hospitals with devastating force. Find out how we’re working to preserve the health and happiness of vulnerable groups and ease the pressure on intensive care units  

Ill-equipped to cope 

The crippling impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has most readily been felt inside Romania’s major hospitals. Amid medical shortages, breach of protocols and poor management, hundreds of doctors and nurses have struggled to weather the storm – many of whom, lacking proper personal protective equipment (PPE), have become infected themselves. In July, news broke that as many as 757 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had left Romania’s hospitals against medical advice – an unsavoury reminder of the growing lack of faith in the medical system.   

This, says authorities, alongside the widespread relaxing of restrictions during the Summer, has led to the alarming increase in cases across Romania. Beyond the virus itself, the restrictive measures put in place to contain the spread have had calamitous upshots on livelihoods. In rural areas, where labour markets are already depleted, farmers and local businesses are heavily affected. In these communities, basic needs already go unmet. Now, food, medicine and hygiene products are in shorter supply than ever. School closures and diminished support for the country’s elderly has only compounded issues – leaving those at the fringes of society increasingly susceptible to abuse and isolation.  

Our response  

Dorcas is doing everything within our power to continue our programme activities and support the most vulnerable sectors of society. Our emergency response has led with one key strategy since its inception – to limit the risk of infection amongst elderly and marginalised communities, and, in doing so, ease the pressure on hospital intensive care units. We have also introduced a number of digital tools to aid us in our work and address urgent mental health needs amongst isolated households.  

Extra support for elderly 

The changes we have made to our existing elderly care programmes have taken several forms. We are providing elderly people with hygiene packs, information pamphlets and small audio devices so that they can listen to the bible and recorded sermons. Our grannies also receive seedlings and chickens to grow their own food – a safe and low-cost alternative to the supermarket. For those less mobile, our dedicated team of staff and volunteers have been making regular shopping trips to buy basic foodstuffs such as bread and milk. Where possible, we have been opting for local grocery stores rather than supermarket chains. This approach is designed to support community-owned businesses while also boosting the health and wellbeing of vulnerable households who receive a selection of high quality seasonal produce and ingredients every week.  

This has been our priority throughout the pandemic – to keep elderly communities happy, healthy and active. One of our local partners even got grannies to write out their shopping lists by hand – a move that some say, with a hint of jest, could prevent the early onset of Alzheimer’s. “This is an unprecedented crisis that has devastated life as we know it and will continue to do so for years to come. In light of this, we must not forget to lift each other up and have a laugh from time to time”, says Attila Daray, Country Director for our Romania programme. “Isolation and loneliness are very real concepts in Romania, and COVID-19 has only made them more evident”, he continues. “That’s why we have developed local support circles to include regular phone calls and counselling sessions for elderly people. Sometimes they even call us”, he smiles. “No matter the worry, big or small, my team of trained professional are on the other end of the phone line.” 

With this in mind, Dorcas staff also made it their mission to get elderly individuals out of the house and into nature during the Summer. In the Winter months we will focus our attention once again on home-based care, welcoming support and creative ideas from younger community members. 

Continued learning for Roma children 

Everyone has the right to the protection of their health – it is a fundamental human right. Just like every child has the right to an education. Dorcas has adapted its Roma Inclusion and Development programme in Romania to meet these demands and address the unequal risks that COVID-19 poses to marginalised Roma families.  

One way in which we have achieved this is by using WhatsApp as a communication device between teachers and children. Homework is sent and received by text, and teachers also provide feedback through messaging. This means that Roma children can continue to learn and engage regularly with their teacher. The teacher also dedicates time to ask how their pupil is doing giving the child an opportunity to voice any issues at home. Our programme director has been responsible for mediating these conversations, checking in with families to collect feedback, quell concerns and optimise the process. She has also stayed in close contact with local schools, after-school teachers, the City Hall and social workers to ensure that every child gets the support they need – both in and outside of class hours.  

Protecting public health 

Practically, Dorcas is continuing to work closely with local health boards and key partners to help community members incorporate preventative measures into their daily lives. Our Sukhar Roma Women Self Helf Group were ahead of the pack when it came to the adoption of face masks. Seeing their enthusiasm, we supplied sewing machines and textiles so that the women could make their own and sell them on to the community for a small price. The group quickly became local visionaries – producing their colourful cloth face masks in bulk and delivering them to vulnerable households. The masks come with instructions of how to use them and even a small video was created with further guidance. This action is supported by the distribution of leaflets containing the latest public health information and advice as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

We have also taken our message to the heart of communities via a number of awareness raising events. One such event took place across three major cities in Transylvania on 1 October. At each location, we set up tents where Dorcas staff handed out hundreds of hygiene packs including items such as disposable masks, bottles of hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes. Each pack also contained a message; a friendly call to action to take proper care of the elderly, such as: “Would you like to do shopping for an elderly person? Now, you can do so safely with our hygiene starter kit.” Or: “We continue to fight for our elderly, please help us keep them safe too by…”. Some 1,600 people attended the event and were also encouraged to spread the word between family and friends.  

Next Steps 

“With the number of new infections hitting daily records, and with restrictions relaxed, we are facing a worsening crisis that the healthcare system simply isn’t equipped to handle”, Attila explains. “Beyond public health, this is going to have huge long-term impacts for mental wellbeing. Though the majority of our projects are ongoing, social activities are suspended. What impact does that have on the mental health of a 90-year-old widow? How might that affect the atmosphere in a Roma household? These are the difficult questions we need to ask now – and we need to look at smarter ways to address them.” 

Dorcas is responding to the mounting mental health threat by incorporating a range of digital tools into our activities. “Distance communication is absolutely vital”, says Attila. “We have identified some solutions but now we need to turn our attention to new digital platforms, such as e-learning, management and videoconferencing sites that will help us reach the communities we serve but also improve our relationship with staff.”  

With this in mind, staff and volunteers have taken part in an initial training designed to help them incorporate digital tools into their daily job. The training included a full module on maintaining mental health and wellbeing while working from home. Attila reiterates: “Eight months into the crisis, we’ve learned that life may never go back to normal. That means work can’t continue as normal either. Stress due to over hours, anxiety about the morning Zoom call, a dip in motivation – any psychological problem, big or small, needs to be addressed in a sensitive and systemic manner. It is our duty as an organisation and will take precedence moving forward.” 

Dorcas programmes in Romania are primarily funded by private donations from the Netherlands and implemented directly with the support of 11 local partners. In the months ahead, we will continue to enlist the support of these actors to accelerate our activities as the economic and social fallouts of the crisis begin to play out. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to stay up-to-date on our local interventions. 

10 November 2020