10 July 2020

Coronavirus in Romania – back to square one?

Almost two months into the gradual relaxation period following the stricter lockdown, the situation does not look particularly good for my country. Just this Wednesday Romania announced an all-time record of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases, 555 – a record that was immediately surpassed a day later. The case numbers were already increasing steadily throughout June. The first week of June coincided basically with the lowest point in the curve with 119 cases on June 3rd, afterwards cases climbed back into the 250 to 400 range, back to April levels. This was reflected in the reproduction number, even if it is not a perfect measure of disease spread – which climbed above 1 in the last week of May and now is already above 1.1 – and coincides with greater mobility of the population – most activity metrics recorded by Google Mobility Trends have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. For the time being there is no discernible increase in deaths, but this is a lagging indicator that could spike in the second half of July if cases continue on this trajectory.

It is worrying that infections are multiplying while restrictions and precautions remain in place, with case spikes across multiple counties. Indoor restaurants were not allowed to reopen, despite vociferations in Parliament by our current major opposition party. On the other hand, gyms have opened on June 15th, but with restrictions allowing only individual sport activities and a 10 sqm area reserved for each customer. Masks are still mandatory in closed public spaces and public transportation – from my limited experience this requirement is generally respected, and promptly enforced by shop keepers. Two representatives, again from the socialist opposition party, made news because they refused to weak masks in a fast food, but the police were called in and the representatives were fined.

So, what went wrong? As I mentioned in previous updates, people around here are not keen on respecting rules. Coupled with boredom and complacency at what many perceive as a distant treat, people rushed out as soon as restrictions relaxed, as if nothing bad could happen. There are plenty of ‘skeptics’ claiming the danger is blown out of proportion, spreading nonsensical conspiracy theories and misinformation, or simply pushing for businesses to reopen sooner. This unfortunately can have grave consequences: according to a recent news report, a nurse in Timișoara who did not believe the virus exists and was refusing to wear masks was the cause of an outbreak at her hospital – inconceivably irresponsible for a nurse to behave this way.

Worse still, the opposition party is resisting common sense measures by the government, attacking their decisions at the Constitutional Court, basically treating the crisis as an opportunity for political gains ahead of Parliamentary elections in late fall – no wonder their supporters feel they have the right to skirt the rules. Some of the early fines for breaking quarantine have been reversed by the Constitutional Court, which also ruled that keeping people in isolation against their will is infringing on their rights, leading to hundreds of carriers simply walking out of hospitals. The latest obstructive act was to invite a series of NGOs spreading antivaxxer propaganda and other conspiracy theories to Parliamentary debates about new quarantine legislation and use this to eliminate some protective measures intended by the government. I am sure this sounds familiar to anyone from the United States reading this. As things stand, I fear Romania will be surpassing 1000 daily cases as early as next week.

In my opinion, the current rebound could have been mostly avoided if we had stayed in lockdown for another 10 to 15 days. With the downward trend in May we had the chance to reduce case numbers to low double digits, maybe even single digits, if we had waited to detect and isolate more hidden carriers. Instead people were allowed to move around more freely inside cities and around the country, to go out picnicking and sunbathing, and the disease found fresh unsuspecting victims.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases July 2020 Europe
Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in July 2020 (Europe)

It is unfortunate, because around us European countries are cautiously opening borders and preparing for summer season. There are of course exceptions: Sweden is still struggling with the epidemic and its citizens are not even allowed to travel into neighboring Denmark; the UK is also excluded, lagging behind because of their late response; Poland (which did not manage to lower cases significantly for the past three months) and Portugal (with a recent outbreak in Lisbon), as well as Romania, are on the ‘yellow’ list, meaning most other countries require a recent COVID-19 test to prove travelers are free of infection, or impose 14 day quarantines upon entry. Another deterrent to traveling abroad, the complicated set of travel rules can change overnight: earlier this week Greece suddenly closed borders to Serbia because of a recent spike in infections. I fear we are not far from the same thing happening to Romania; from the perspective of Greece we at least have the benefit of being EU members, and a steady source of tourists, factors which may delay this decision for a while. I for one am resigned not to spend my vacation abroad this year – too many risks and extra requirements that will ruin the experience.

I should probably not complain too much, because around the world the situation is increasingly dire, but it infuriates me that we managed to keep the outbreak in check for the first phase, only to fail the second time, when we should be better prepared. There are new reports about the neurological damage caused by the disease and about pulmonary lesions in asymptomatic carriers – this is not something you want entering your body, no matter how healthy you are now. A German study performed in the town of Jena, which introduced the obligation to wear face masks earlier than the rest of the country, showed that it decreased the growth rate of COVID-19 cases by about 40% – a positive outcome, but not the perfect single solution some claim it to be. Other studies have reinforced earlier observations that the general population was less exposed to the virus: even in hard-hit Spain, only 5 to 10% of the population has virus antibodies – achieving herd immunity is not looking feasible without vaccines.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases July 2020 world
Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in July 2020 (world)

The case numbers are soaring in the Unites States and Brazil (President Bolsonaro finally got infected, a classic case of poetic justice), with India and Russia not far behind. Ironically this means US citizens are denied entry in most other countries, including UK, Canada and the EU. The Unites States is regarded so low for its handling of the crisis that even Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has distanced his policies from the US and Brazil examples. Many countries that have so far contained the spread are seeing new waves following relaxation measures, for example Israel and Australia, some driven by young asymptomatic carriers of the virus. I hope people finally stopped thinking this virus will vanish in hot weather – the Brazilian tropical climate did not slow it in the least. To top things off a new strain of influenza has been identified in China – though I hope they will not dare let a second pathogen loose in the same year, it would be disastrous to the Chinese reputation.

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