Bucharest, Romania – Given the problems such as high-level corruption, the emigration of medical personnel and the European Union’s lowest healthcare expenditure per capita that have plagued the Romanian healthcare system for more than 30 years, there’s little wonder that, come pandemic-time, it would face a huge challenge. We are, after all, seeing far more developed healthcare systems in danger of collapsing due to the coronavirus crisis.
It is a worldwide pandemic, all being said. The Romanian press has been showcasing testimonies from medics claiming they lack necessary protective gear, including masks or visors, while officials say all medical personnel have been protected. Worse, say analysts, they failed to be transparent about it, not admitting at the beginning that they did not have what they needed.
“In January, after the WHO declared this a pandemic, a commission was formed and we started acquisition procedures for protective gear, biocides and medicines,” Horatiu Moldovan, state secretary at the Romanian Ministry of Health said in an interview on Tuesday.
“As acquisition contracts materialised, we have prioritised the distribution of equipment towards areas with the highest risk of exposure for medical personnel, like infectious disease hospitals, intensive care units, emergency units and SMURD (Mobile Emergency Service for Resuscitation and Extrication), leaving the less exposed areas to a future approach.”
He said the amount of equipment distributed had progressively increased and, at the present time, they had covered any shortages. “We didn’t find there were situations where medics were exposed to risk due to the lack of protective equipment,” Moldovan added.
On April 13, there were 812 medical personnel infected with COVID-19 out of 6,633 total confirmed cases.
That’s more than 12 percent of the people infected in Romania.
Out of those 812, more than 420 are in Suceava, and another 103 in Bucharest. Horatiu Moldovan says the situation in Suceava was not caused by a lack of equipment, but by poor management. Whatever the real cause, medics there claim they were washing and reusing their masks over and over again.
But where the system struggled, the people stepped up. Individuals and small enterprises have started to produce the equipment so desperately needed – foremost by those on the front line of this fight, but also for other people at risk. Manufacturers have pivoted into visor production, boutiques are now into making masks. One team created a prototype for an autonomous disinfection robot to be used in hospitals.
They are all trying to contribute. Their email, messaging and Facebook accounts are filled with requests from medical personnel lacking equipment, others in state institutions with no way of protecting themselves at work. And they are answering as many of these cries for help as they can.
“People were desperate,” says 33-year-old Razvan Pascu, from H3, one of more than 100 manufacturers who have started producing protective visors. “In the beginning, we were delivering them directly to medics’ homes. You could see they were scared, that they were desperate, that they were grateful. They are great people, but they face a tremendous challenge now.”
Alexandru Cristal, a 38-year-old from FabLab, said he found it “extraordinary how the makers’ community got involved and started producing protective equipment”.
“I feel the country is studded by visors, and yet there is still demand.”
They get messages from doctors in hospitals, on Facebook, by email or by phone. From maternity wards to ambulance services, from Bucharest to Nehoiu. “They try to get to us on any available channel,” he said.
Visors are not the only protective equipment needed. There was a huge shortage of masks. First, Romania’s health ministry said only people with symptoms should wear masks outdoors. A few days ago, they issued a statement saying that people should wear anything they have to cover their mouth and nose.
“We know our masks are not homologated (officially approved)”, says Andreea Savin, 27, a manager at Atelierul de Panza (The Cloth Workshop), who started making cotton masks. “They are not meant for professional environments, but rather for day-to-day activities. It is very sad that we are currently receiving requests from medical personnel. It speaks volumes about the current needs and it is clear we were not prepared for what hit us.”
H3’s Pascu said innovation and adaptability were saving lives. “What is important is that we are now proving that things can be done in our country. In a few days we changed our activity, our production, we showed we are flexible,” he said. “There are producers, makers who are making miracles these days. These products, visors and other solutions, created in Romania, are probably saving lives.”