A journey through Romania in the time of coronavirus

A photojournalist travels across the country in a motorhome to document how curfews and quarantines have changed it.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
A view of a farmhouse from the window of the motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

For weeks, I have had coronavirus news for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack.

You talk to colleagues, and it is the only topic. You talk to parents, and it is the same. Friends, too. In my social media bubble, everyone seems very aware of the situation and its gravity, even if there is still the occasional joke. 

But I was curious to see how other people see it. And I needed to work, to do something.

So, together with my partner, I decided to take a trip across Romania, to document how daily life has changed. With hotels closed and other accommodation unsafe, we took a motorhome offered to us by the rental company Joy2Wander.

The day after Romanian authorities imposed restrictions on movement, we set off. 

Day 1, March 24 – 762 cases, 8 deaths

I have never seen Bucharest so empty. It is the first day since a military ordinance demanded that people stay at home. With our bags packed, provisions made and batteries charged, we drive on almost deserted streets to the place outside town where we will pick up the motorhome.

I always wanted to go on a trip like this, but I never imagined I would be using the motorhome for the purpose of self-isolation.

In the fight against the spread of COVID-19, Romania wanted to move fast. It closed schools early on in the crisis and imposed restrictions on movement before the death toll reached 10.

On March 24, the day we set off, there are 762 confirmed cases in Romania and eight deaths.

We move our bags to the motorhome, pack the little fridge and hit the road. Not long after leaving Bucharest my father calls. On Facetime. I have not told him about the documentary trip, so I hesitate over accepting the video call. I do not want to worry him. But he will see the photos soon, I reason, so I answer.

Gusts of wind rock the motorhome as we drive. There are mainly trucks on the road and a few cars. Behind most of the windshields, is a driver wearing a mask.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Our first stop is the market in Alexandria. Behind a stall with carrots and celery, Estera wears white rubber gloves. She will turn 60 next month and come rain or shine or virus, she comes to the market to sell her vegetables.

Estera takes some precautions, like using disinfectant and wearing gloves, but her ease of mind comes from the fact that there is no case of coronavirus in Alexandria. No confirmed case anyway, as Romania has been slow at testing.

It felt unnatural doing documentary photography without getting close to people; to listen to their stories while keeping them at a safe distance. But I knew that I could not get closer than two metres, that I had to stay away from crowded places, that I could not touch any surfaces and that I had to wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I returned to the motorhome.

Dumitru Subtirelu, 52, sells potatoes nearby. “I’ve only had 10 customers since morning,” he says. He is afraid his produce will go bad.

On our way back to the motorhome, we pass a pastry shop. A woman in a red uniform serves her customers through a crack in a thick plastic screen that covers the shop’s window.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

As we travel further south, along the Danube, the radio frequency picks up a Bulgarian channel. I do not understand anything they are saying, except coronavirus.

At the border crossing at Bechet, the queue of trucks waiting to pass spreads over kilometres.

The villages we pass are empty.

We park for the night on the bank of the Danube. The silence is sporadically broken by the barks of a dog. 

Day 2, March 25 – 906 confirmed cases, 13 deaths

Driving the motorhome feels like being in a circus. All eyes, though few, are on us as we pass by. Some people wave.

After media reports of COVID-19 cases connected to a priest using the same Eucharist spoon for dozens of people, churches have been banned from holding services – they can only transmit their sermons online.

In Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the sermon sounds as we pass by a church. A few worshippers are gathered in front of it, close to the speakers. They are not allowed inside. One woman sits further away on a bench, holding a red umbrella, as she listens. 

At the market, people are buying groceries, women are selling flowers. If not for the face masks, it would look like nothing had changed.

Across the street, a woman sells newspapers. She used to have seven newsstands, now she has only two. “Sales have dropped and I cannot afford to hold on to employees. We will die of hunger, all of us with small businesses,” she says.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

On the radio, as we again drive through empty villages, there is a lot of talk about the coronavirus: continuous reminders that we do not want to become the next Italy.

I see groups of five or six cars, some with foreign number plates, escorted by police or ministry of interior vehicles. Many Romanians who were working in Italy, Spain or other European countries have been forced to come home. As they return, they are placed in quarantine.

For lunch, we stop in a field. It is sunny for the first time in a couple of days. We eat cheese with fresh radishes and wild garlic we bought from the market earlier. An old farm surrounded by tall trees in the distance is our view through the motorhome’s window.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

It is almost sundown when we reach Timisoara.

As we walk past the baroque buildings towards Liberty Square, it resembles the set of an apocalyptic movie.

There are few sounds to interrupt the silence here – just the heels of a passerby on the cobblestones, a tram in the distance, a pigeon. 

The emptiness is both hard to bear and comforting.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

There are a lot of police on the city streets, even if they are almost empty. It is the first time we get pulled over and checked.

Before the day is over, we make one more stop in Arad.

It is my birthday today.

Day 3, March 26 – 1,029 confirmed cases, 17 deaths

I wake up by the river Mures. On a hill nearby, there are the remains of an old fortress. A flock of sheep make their way across the field.

This place seems far from COVID-19 and everything.

By the side of the road from Arad to Deva, in a little forest, we meet Vasile, 63. He has been a forestry worker for more than 42 years. Originally from Maramures, he now lives in Paulis with his wife. Their children are all grown up and have left home.

“Nature hasn’t made anyone sick,” Vasile says about coming to work these days. “There hasn’t been a disease like this one, not in my lifetime. Not to be able to shake someone’s hand, not to get close to people.”

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

A little further down E68, truck driver Dan, 35, is more worried.

“Come Easter we won’t have a job. There is no more demand for certain goods. Our company has 70 trucks. In two weeks’ time only 10 will be rolling.”

The father of two is on his way back from Belgium to his hometown, Sibiu.

“Maybe it will be a good break,” he says. “For years, I’ve been driving and driving. I am at home only two days a week, at best.”

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

In Deva we stop at a McDrive. I am craving fries.

But the motorhome is too high to enter and they do not serve pedestrians.

In the car park, a taxi driver wearing a visor and green rubber gloves tells us he would gladly help us if he were not with his wife and toddler.

We give up on the idea of fries and move on. 

In Alba Iulia, a police car patrols the city centre, urging people, through a megaphone, to stay indoors. Neighbours chat from their balconies.

Day 4, March 27 – 1,292 confirmed cases, 24 deaths

Last night we parked in an old oak tree reservation near Sighisoara. We found the place through the park4night app.

In the darkness, I did not see the beauty that surrounded us. But come morning, I wake to find the huge canopies of old oaks guarding us like valiant protectors as birds sing all around.

We decide to spend the day there. 

Later that morning, a soldier from a nearby military base visits us. He has been tasked with informing people that they should stay isolated at home. 

“What can I say, more isolated than this you cannot be,” he says, smiling.

He is friendly and lingers for a chat. He believes that tighter restrictions should be put in place, that people should be allowed to go shopping only once every three days.

He is also worried that prices are going up. “You could buy the green onion with three lei, now it is six.”

He is one of only five people we see that day. The others are a man riding his bicycle with his dog, another walking five or six dogs and a young couple taking a stroll. 

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Being in nature makes me feel safe, as though no pandemic could reach me here.

But in the evening we watch the news, as we do every evening now, and the tranquility and reassurance of the day is mostly shattered. But not entirely. That happens when I read an article in The New York Times about the situation in Italy called We Take the Dead From Morning Till Night. I cry like a baby and feel truly scared for the first time – not for myself, but for my parents.

I message them both, telling them to take care, to stay safe. I go to bed with a heavy heart. 

Day 5, March 28 – 1,452 confirmed cases, 29 deaths

A woodpecker wakes me up. I make coffee but spill most of it in the grass and cannot make another because we are out of milk. 

My mind is still on the article I read the night before, and the silence here feels more heavy than comforting.

I keep writing things down in my notebook and notice that, for the first time, my notes are more personal than observational.

I think that documenting what is going on may be what is keeping me focused, and even sane. 

As I sit, drinking what is left of my coffee, a man drives by in a van. He waves. On his way back, he stops to talk, rolling down his window.

“Are you staying here until the madness is over?” he asks laughing.

“No, we’ll be on our way today,” we say.

He kindly offers to bring us travel forms – the ones you must carry according to the military ordinance – in case we do not have any. 

At the market in Sighisoara, a lot of people are going about their business. Maybe because it is 11:30am, and those aged 65 and above are only allowed out of their homes between 11am and 1pm. 

Many are buying fruit and vegetables. The masks are, once more, the only sign that we are living in special times.

Sabina, a 75-year-old mother of two, says she longs to go for a walk. But other than that, her life has not changed much.

As for keeping in contact with friends, she says the phone is important right now.

“The greatest joy these days is to see my family healthy. Still,” she adds.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

In Odorheiu Secuiesc we need to stop for petrol and water.

At the petrol station, the dark-haired, 40-something-year-old man who helps us fill the water tank is worried about the future. Management is considering stopping the night shift because of the night travel ban, he says. This means some of the staff there will have to stay at home or work fewer hours.

Our next stop is Miercurea Ciuc. It is completely deserted. Only a few taxi drivers sit in their cars near the city centre.

We stop to buy supplies at a supermarket. A few other people are doing the same. I see a young couple, both wearing masks and gloves, holding each other. I quickly take their picture. At a time when we must stay away from other people and not even hug our parents or friends, a gesture like this creates a fleeting sense of normalcy.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Day 6, March 29, 2020 – 1,760 confirmed cases, 38 deaths

I pull down the blinds of the windows and see a frozen mountain lake surrounded by wooded cliffs. 

When we arrived in the darkness of night, this place was one big unknown. 

The Red Lake (Lacu Rosu) has a strange legend. It tells the story of a beautiful, black-haired and emerald-eyed Estera who one day met a handsome boy at a fair. It was love at first sight. The boy bought her a sky blue scarf and asked her to marry him. But he was sent off to war before they could. One Sunday, as she was sitting by the spring, thinking of her loved one, an outlaw kidnapped Estera and took her to his shelter in the mountains. She asked the mountains for help. The cliffs listened to her plea and a July storm, like no other before, made the mountains tumble, burying alive both the girl and the outlaw.

According to the legend, that is how the lake was created.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

It is a place popular with tourists, but now all the terraces are closed, their chairs and tables stacked up inside.

We stop in Piatra Neamt. The streets are empty. We stop in Bacau. The streets are empty.

In front of a hospital in Bacau triage tents have been set up. They have been placed outside hospitals across the country.

Suceava municipal hospital, where reports suggest more than 180 medical staff have been infected as a result of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), has become the epicentre of the pandemic in Romania.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

Crossing a bridge as we enter Galati county, I see a group of men fishing in the river below. One of them works as a truck driver and used to drive to Italy. Upon returning, he spent 14 days in quarantine. 

They are not afraid of the virus, they say; no cases have been reported in their village, Cosmesti.

It is the first time we spend the night in a city. We stop in a car park, but a security guard tells us to leave. So we move the motorhome to a parking area for trucks and sleep there. It feels disconcerting, especially with the curfew. But it is late and we are too tired to find somewhere else.

Day 7, March 30 – 1,952 confirmed cases, 44 deaths

I open the blinds and see trucks, a supermarket and a woman jogging with a mask on.

As we enter the city, we are stopped at a police checkpoint. The policeman smiles and asks about the motorhome; he wants to take a look inside. He checks my press badge and lets us pass.

Galati is not quiet. On a street near the city centre, with police standing at the corner, elderly people sit on benches, enjoying the sun and chatting. People stand in line at an ATM, at a store, at a pharmacy. Most keep the required distance from one another. But still it feels different here, somehow too lively.

Documenting Romanians daily life under Covid-19 from a motorhome [Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]
[Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera]

In Braila, it feels the same. At the market, City Hall employees disinfect the pavements around it, looking like something out of Ghostbusters, I think to myself.

We take the ferry to cross the Danube. According to the ferry operator, fewer cars are crossing this week.

“You can tell there are restrictions. In fact, it’s the fines that did the work,” says Marius, a 35-year-old father of two.

For 18 years, Marius worked in construction. He only started his job as a ferry operator last week. “If I get scared and don’t come to work, who will pay my bills?” he asks.

He believes most people are questioning the future, asking what is to come.

“This coronavirus thing makes you think long term, puts things in perspective, changes your ideas and brings a fear … the fear about tomorrow,” Marius adds.

We pass through Tulcea, which is deserted, and stop in Sarichioi, near the Razim lake.

The wind rocks the motorhome like a boat on waves. It has been a week since we left home trying to document the daily life of Romanians in the time of coronavirus.

On the evening news, we hear about the sixth military ordinance. The sixth in 13 days. Suceava is in complete lockdown.

I fall asleep thinking about what Marius said, thinking about tomorrow.

Source: Al Jazeera