Date: 24 April 2020
The struggle with coronavirus and Russian disinformation in Romania
Romania is a country with almost 20 million citizens and, after Poland, the second largest member of the B9 group, as well as a crucial strategic point for NATO’s Eastern Flank. We spoke with former National Security Advisor to the President of Romania and Development Director at the New Strategy Center, George Scutaru, where he also tells how Romania is dealing with new challenges in the era of the coronavirus.
Jarosław Walkowicz, The Warsaw Institute Review: Could you please tell our readers how the pandemic spread to Romania looked like? When were the first signs of COVID-19 noticed or formally diagnosed?
George Scutaru, New Strategy Center: Romania didn’t have its first confirmed case until the 26th of February. The victim had come in contact with an Italian patient who was diagnosed with the virus. The spread was slow in the beginning, and it applied mostly to people who had returned from Italy. After coming into contact with these people, the local population also began contracting the virus. Starting from March 10th onward, the number of confirmed cases began to spread rapidly. During the first weeks, medical personnel comprised of a large percentage of the confirmed cases in the most affected areas (Bucharest, Suceava, Hunedoara). The number of cases spiked significantly in the last week of March (23rd – 29th), when the number of confirmed cases went from 433 cases on March 22 to 1,760 by the March 29th. After approximately a month, on 24 April, Romania registered 10417 cases, the number of infected persons and deceased being comparable to the ones in Poland. Moreover, the first death to be caused by the new COVID-19 virus only took place on the 22nd of March, almost a month after the first case had been confirmed. One of the biggest reasons for the spread of the virus is contact with other infected people (47.5% of the cases), most of whom had come from affected countries (such as Italy, Spain, Great Britain, France or Germany). Most significantly, there has been an issue with the large number of people returning from abroad, who failed to adhere to the quarantine measures.
How is the crisis developing at present?
As of the 24th of April, the number of confirmed cases reached a total of 10417. Of these, 2817 have recovered, 241 are in intensive care units, while 552 have died. Moreover, 12251people are currently in quarantine and about 27410 others are in isolation. On a national level, approximately 120000 tests have been performed.
It appears that during these days, Romania is approaching the peak number of infections and we hope this rise will develop in a relatively controllable rhythm in order to avoid pressure on the healthcare system and especially, on the intensive care units.
Romania got passed the problem of the lack of essential necessary medical equipment through imports and starting internal production of such materials, the only problem remaining being the lack of enough ventilators, a common problem faced by most countries during this difficult period. A huge issue has also been the high rate of infection affecting medical staff, who are the most exposed to the virus. On March 26th, 153 cases were confirmed to be related to medical and auxiliary staff and after almost a month, the number reached over 1400 cases. Unfortunately, a few days ago, the first case of a medic that died because of this was registered. This has led to resignations of medical staff in hospitals throughout the country, some of them working on teams in intensive care units. In order to address this pressing issue, medical military personnel were sent to some of these hospitals.
What countermeasures have been introduced? A couple of weeks ago, one of the leading Polish news websites mentioned that Romanian authorities have implemented a law, which states that any conscious behavior that leads to the death of another person as a result of COVID-19, regardless of their diagnosis, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
After the rapid spike in cases at the beginning of March, a state of emergency was declared on March 16, which was meant to help contain the spread of the virus. The military ordinance that was released on the 17th imposed social distancing measures, closing of restaurant, as well as all scientific, artistic, religious, sports activities, and any other gatherings of more than 100 people. A second military ordinance followed on the 21st of March suspending several activities such as shopping. Additionally, groups of more than 3 people were prohibited and restrictions were placed on going out during the night. On March 24th, another military ordinance restricted leaving the house except for the purposes of going to work (where applicable), obtaining basic needs, and in other exceptional cases. Citizens over the age of 65 are also allowed to leave the houses between 11:00 and 13:00. Another measure that has been taken was to suspend flights to and from red areas, such as Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, USA, Great Britain, Netherlands, Turkey, and Iran. Given the situation, and the fact that the period after the Orthodox Easter was believed to be the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in Romania, the state of emergency was extended until 15th of May. Because there has been a lot of instances where people have left quarantine and refused to adhere to the prevention measures, the adoption of more strict laws has become a necessity. People who leave quarantine without the express approval of the authorities will be forced into another 14 days of quarantine. The same goes for people who leave isolation. In both instances, the culprits involved will be sanctioned. Moreover, if quarantine is broken and others are infected as a result of that actions, the person who committed that act may be sentenced to 1 to 5 years in prison. If such a situation lead to a coronavirus induced death, the offence carries a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years in prison.
In general, have most Romanians been adhering to these rules, quarantine, and isolation, and other restrictions, or have there been difficulties in getting everyone to stay inside? How is the Romanian society coping with the situation?
As mentioned previously, there have been a lot of instances where Romanians have not properly adhered to the rules of quarantine and isolation. Over 2000 people have been put into institutionalized quarantine because they failed to respect the necessary period of isolation. Moreover, people who fail to follow the curfews are also being fined. There have been few situations in which the police and the gendarmerie intervened with force against some groups of citizens that did not respect the rules of isolation and expressed aggressive behaviour.
There has also been an issue with the massive influx of Romanians returning from abroad, who have either not properly disclosed where they are coming from or have not respected the necessary prevention measures taken. Despite the concern of a massive influx of Romanians living abroad returning to the country for the Orthodox Easter (an estimated 800,000 people, taking into consideration the numbers for previous years), the number of Romanians that came in was much less, of approximately 26,000. These low numbers of incoming Romanians was the effect of discouraging measures taken by the authorities, such as that everyone returning from a red area zone (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, UK, all countries with a large Romanian diaspora), will have to go straight into quarantine for 14 days upon entry into the country. The airline travel ban is also helping improve this situation.
Which regions in Romania are most affected?
Currently, the center of the outbreak is in the city of Suceava, in the northern part of the country, where the number of confirmed cases has reached 2477 on 24 April. In this particular area, authorities have instituted a total quarantine, meaning transport between the city and 8 other surrounding towns is restricted, only allowing transportation of products considered to be either basic needs, medical equipment and other medicine. The major problem here is with the Hospital of Suceava, where a significant part of the entire medical staff has tested positive. This hospital has since been placed under military management.
Another issue area is in Bucharest, which has a total of 1133 cases. Similar to Suceava, Bucharest faces problems with medical staffing in various hospitals.
Some hospitals around the country have also been temporarily closed for disinfection as a result of the high levels of infection among the medical staff. While these hospitals are closed and are being disinfected, patients have been moved to other facilities.
How do Romanian statistics look like compared to the statistics of other EU countries?
Romania is not doing as badly compared to the most affected countries in western Europe, but it is ranked relatively high compared to the eastern European region. We are waiting to reach the peak of infections at the end of April, and as I previously said, the numbers are comparable to the situation in Poland. The fact that in Romania some severe measures were put into place since the beginning of the outbreak, more rapidly than in some Western countries, this helped us to avoid having a big number of infected persons in a short timeframe and especially to avoid an increased number of deaths.
Local elections are planned for the end of May in Romania. Have there been considerations or even announcements indicating whether elections will be held or postponed? Do we know what the thoughts of the general public are on this matter?
As of the 6th of April, local elections have been postponed, which means that the terms in office of the current authorities are also being prolonged until the December 31, 2020. Moreover, the process of submitting the voter rolls will be simplified, given the circumstances, and there is heavy discussion around simplifying the entire voting process. The new date of the elections is yet to be decided upon and announced, but will most likely take place sometime in September or October of this year. Furthermore, parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for the end of the year are probably not going to be postponed for the time being. It is also too early to determine the public opinion on this matter.
Both Romania and Poland are targets of disinformation activity of state and/or non-state actors, including by means of foreign internet trolls. What are the most concerning threats associated with deliberate disinformation activity, and from which direction are they coming from?
Romania is often the target of Russian internet trolls, or general news aimed at the disinformation of the public or discrediting government authorities, as well as intensifying the distrust in state institutions. Especially during this time, there is a massive influx of false news circulating and being distributed around, which tends to lead to general anxiety within the population. Traditional channels of disinformation, such as news websites like RT or Sputnik, are still used to spread false information, but there has also been a wave of new websites being created, with that exact, if not even more overt, intent. Although measures are being taken against sites with malicious intents, some of which have been identified and closed down during this period, much more needs to be done in order to combat the influx of fake news circulating on the internet.
At this stage, are you able to tell us some examples of the disinformation in Romania relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic? Has this been felt among Romania’s neighbours and friends?
The spread of disinformation is an issue felt at the European level. During this period, the main intent is to discredit national governments and spread misinformation regarding the measures being taken in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Moreover, there is also an influx of false information being distributed around about the coronavirus itself. The following are examples of disinformation campaigns:
• “Coronavirus is just a simple flu and should be ignored” – one example is a video that was posted online of a presumed “professor” explaining how the current crisis is nothing more than unjustified panic, as there are already a lot of annual deaths resulting from seasonal flus. All the data provided in the video is not based on any factual information. The information is easily debunked as being fake.
• “You can treat coronavirus using x and y products” – clearly false, as there is currently no vaccine or treatment for the virus. A video has circulated around that claimed the Chinese and Russians would possess medicine that can cure any form of the coronavirus, a piece of information that can be easily debunked as being fake.
• There has also been a large influx of hostility against the EU and the European project as a whole. Although the EU has been slow to respond to the crisis, the outcry against it has been unjustifiably too negative. One trend, especially, is criticizing the lack of European solidarity to the point of reaching Eurosceptic rhetoric. The lack of outreach that European institutions have to EU citizens is already damaging the public’s view of the union, and with these sentiments resounding across the continent, the damage could be massive in the long run.
• A particular type of fake news that seems to appeal to the Romanian population is the type that is aimed at undermining the state. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been various news articles circulated around detailing false information regarding the measures that were to be taken, about the closing/reopening of the schools, or even about the deaths of medical personnel who had contracted the coronavirus, which was then later proved to be false. All of this news was specifically aimed at destabilizing the state and decreasing the level of trust people have in institutions.
• “Coronavirus as a weapon created by x state for the purpose of undermining y state” – there is no clear basis for this declaration, and besides, COVID-19 is part of a larger family of viruses, which includes viruses like SARS and MERS. Similarly, there was a conspiracy theory about how the coronavirus was created in order to decrease the population, or more specifically, the older population. This theory has even been propagated by Romanian vloggers on their platforms. Moreover, this has been a tactic used by anti-western disinformation trolls, circulating false news that the coronavirus is a weapon created by the US government in order to undermine China’s economic growth.
Another widely discussed conspiracy theory is that the new 5G technology is the cause of the coronavirus and has taken root in Wuhan because of its wide use throughout the province.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theories such as these have wide outreach and manage to appeal to the population.
How does Romania perceive cooperation with Poland in strategic context? Are our countries going to intensify the strategic or energy cooperation?
From the Baltic Sea all the way to the Black Sea, from a strategic point of view, Romania and Poland are arguably the most largely influential and thereby significant NATO and EU states. This is also a result of the special relation with the United States, focused specifically on the excellent cooperation in the political and military domains. Romania greatly appreciates the strategic partnership with Poland, and I believe this fact can be seen in the good cooperation within bilateral and regional frameworks, such as the 3 Seas Initiative and the Bucharest 9 (B9) Format. Moreover, there needs to be increased connectivity and mobility between our regions, both in the economic and the military fields.
Just as important is also the cooperation in the energy sector, in order to ensure the energy independence in the region. As far as I know, Poland has also shown interest in participating in the extraction of natural gas in the Black Sea, more specifically around the Neptun Deep offshore perimeter of Romania, with the Polish oil and gas company, PGNiG, being a prospective bidder.
At the same time, taking into account that both countries are facing threats from the East, and that both have strategic alliances with the US, perhaps it would be a good time to consider the common acquisition of military equipment. We have to keep in mind the economic crisis that will undoubtedly hit following this pandemic, and this sort of joint acquisition could, among other things, help with reducing costs, as well as increase the interoperability of our forces. I am convinced that if there is political will, both from Bucharest and Warsaw, we can find the best possible solutions for training and maintenance of the new military equipment so as to ensure that both countries benefit greatly from this cooperation.
How will cooperation with the United States look like after the pandemic?
I have no reason to believe any of the security risks in the Eastern flank will diminish. On the contrary, tensions will spike, as Russia will continue to want to exploit any weakness of the EU or NATO. Thus, from a political and military point of view, the cooperation with the United States will be just as important for both states. I would also add here the importance of the economic sphere, and I hope that the US will follow up on its promise to invest the announced USD 1 billion in the energy sector of the 3 Seas Initiative, just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced at the Munich Security Conference in February.
What does Romania think about the EU’s attitude both during the coronavirus crisis and before it?
It’s clear that the EU lacked a proper reaction at the beginning of the outbreak on the continent. However, after this hiccup at the beginning, the EU has recovered its pace and set in place measures to help alleviate both the medical, as well as the economic problems surfacing as a consequence of the pandemic. We can see these concrete and consistent measures being put into practice right now. To help diminish the harsh impact of the economic crisis that is to follow, the EU has announced assistance packages for both Romania and Poland alongside other EU countries. Moreover, we cannot forget that under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU doesn’t have any competences in the medical domain, which could perhaps serve as food for thought for the future: if we want the EU to be able to react accordingly, perhaps we will need to extend its area of competence to health. I believe the EU finds itself at a crossroad right now, which can either begin to lead to something that resembles its dissolution, or instead, to its robust strengthening. I believe a stronger EU, just as a stronger NATO, are in the best interest of both Romania and Poland.
What is your opinion about Russian activities in the international arena and a domestic policy?
Within the sphere of hybrid wars, Russia manages, with very few costs, to obtain successful results, using methods such as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, destabilization of the political establishment of the Euro-Atlantic space. We should show more coherence and fight these hostile activities, thus increasing the resilience of our countries.
As an authoritarian regime, information is controlled and filtered, but even so it’s becoming more and more obvious that even for Russia the COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be a difficult situation. The impact this will have at a social level, and whether or not the Putin regime will manage to deal with the medical crisis in an effective manner, remains to be seen. We should pay close attention to what is happening in the Russian Federation, and especially to the reactions coming from Kremlin; there might be attempts to start a new crisis in either Ukraine or Belarus in order to obtain internal cohesion.
George Scutaru is the General Director at the New Strategy Center, a Romanian think tank focused on security and the foreign affaires field. He was a member of the Romanian Parliament, Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Defense, and former National Security Advisor to the Romanian President.
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