24 September, 2023
Codru Vrabie (photo: Vlad Stanciu, Association Ink)

An interview with the expert on good governance about the political, social, non-governmental and private sector answers to the pandemic of corona virus

Vladimir Mitev

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova

Mr. Vrabie, we have entered in an unprecedented situation. “State of emergency” was declared in Romania and Bulgaria. If we judge by the TV, politics got frozen, while the positions of power are occupied by doctors with a military grade. What do these changes mean for the Southeast European democracy, for the human rights and for the relation between the citizen and power? To what extent it is clear what exactly the state of emergency mean in Romania?

It is a difficult challenge. The democratic regime in our countries is not so well established. That is why we will have difficulties both in this period we are passing through and in the recovery after the state of emergency. In Romania the president is in a very stable political situation, because he has just won his mandate after the November 2019 elections. But he has great difficulties in crisis management. He doesn’t communicate sufficiently or efficiently. On the other hand, the parliament is in the end of it mandate are has a very poor image in society, which dates back to the December 2016 elections. In the last months the political quarrels and the polarisation of the parliamentary groups have not improved the parliaent’s image. In its turn, the government is fragile. On 14 March 2020 the parliament approved the same governmental team, which it voted down in a no confidence vote on 5 February 2020. Happily, the pandemic crisis was managed by the National Committee for the Special Emergency Situations (CNSSU), which is separated from the political fights. This Committee will have an important role to play in the times of state of emergency, along the Internal Ministry. I think it is important that the EU Treaties and the European Charter on Human Rights guarantee us that we will not wake up in a totalitarian regime in the times of pandemic. Romania has advantage in its relation with respecting human rights – the most visible person in the crisis management is doctor Raed Arafat, who is of Palestinian origine. The president Klaus Iohannis is from the German minority. I would like to think that these people. who are conscious how important are human rights, will not allow abuses of political power, neither in the times of the state of emergency, nor after that. 

However, there are also nuances. There is a measure against the distribution of false news (especially online), which is not written correctly in the decree on the state of emergency. The clarifications, which were made by the authorities calm a little bit the spirits, but the potential for abuse with regard to liberty of speech, exists. We will see how we will pas through this problem. As far as the other rules from the decree are concerned, they seem to be common sense regulations. Therefore, the regulation seems to be correct and predictable, sufficiently clear, limited and concrete (with the exception of the issue of free speech), if it would be interpreted in good faith. I hope it will help us resolve the problem, which we face, without causing complications. 

Germany has announced a support plan for the business at the value of 460 billion euro. Italy has introduced social measures, such as non-payment of credits and communal services for the period of two months in the most affected countries. What measures would the newly-established government Oran introduce in order to counter the pandemic’s spread? Do we see a lasting change in the relations between government, employers and labour unions?

I don’t know what to say about the relations between the government, the employers and the labour unions. I don’t know the problems there. Neither I can comment on the economic and financial measures, which you write about. I only know that there are some petitions, through which the employers’ organisations ask the government to take measures for prevention of possible financial crisis, because if people stay home, there is a likelihood that the economy would contract But I don’t know how to explain this in detail. As far as I understand, the ministry of finance has announced that it would take measures at governmental level.  

In any case, it is a difficult times from the standing point off the relationship between government, employers and labour unions, because this year the decisions for he new component of the Economic and Social Council for the mandate, which starts in 2020, will be taken. 

We expect in the parliament the vote for the state of emergency. In our constitutional system the president has emitted a decree for the constitutions of a state of emergency, and the parliament has 5 days in order to approve or reject this measure. It is still not clear among the jurists whether the parliament can modify parts of the measures in the president’s decree. I think there will be the heated debate of this week. Once that the decree is approved by the parliament, the ministry of internal affairs and CNSSU will become the most important players in the crisis management. 

How does the Romanian society as a whole reacts to the pandemic of corona virus? How do the NGO sector and the private sector answer to the crisis?

The key word is solidarity. The people help first of all for the correct information on the pandemic. Secondly, the people help one another with advise how one could work efficiently from home, especially in education. The shut down of schools and universities has moved the majority of courses online. But all the teachers are not ready to make the step towards digital interaction. All the students don’t have access to the internet. Not all the educational institutions have the IT infrastructure in order to make online courses. I saw a multitude of initiatives, which sustain the educational process, so that it could take place without interruption, as well as it could. 

There is also a lot of support for actions of social assistance, which cannot take place online, but ask for direct contact with people in vulnerable condition. Both in Romania and in Moldova there are autobus or taxi transport companies, which have put their vehicles at the disposal of medicians or social assistants. A lot of companies have taken the decision to allow the employees to work from home. In some cases volunteers from companies have distributed necessary products for the vulnerable people. There are even companies, which contribute to the good functioning of the quarantine centers. In other cases, the companies have relaxed the conditions for payment – for example, some banks have decided to postpone the demand for payment of some credits, so that people could use the money for their present needs and overcome the hard period (it is a measure similar to what you said earlier in Italia). A lot of events and festivals were postponed or transfered online (I know that in Sofia there was also a postponed film festival) and many people didn’t ask for their spent money on tickets back. They understand that these money are necessary for the organisers in these conditions. 

There are non-governmental organisations, which support the authorities in their effort to communicate correctly in the time of this crisis, but there are also surprises on the part of the authorities – e.g. the Romanian fiscal authority, which is known as a very conservative, if not retrograde institution, has encouraged the people to use online instruments, in order to reduce more the contact between the people at the desks. It has also suspended the forced execution over property and the fiscal controls. Even the tribunals have put at the disposal of people and private lawyers the instruments for online communication or e-mail. Some initiatives appeared for support of hospitals and medical personnel with protection suits. There are also young volunteers (who are less susceptible to illness), which buy for the elderly neighbours in the nearby shop. It is more difficult to decide on the church’s role, because some priests don’t take any safety measures, while others give spaces for quarantine centers.

I don’t know if there are initiatives for support for people, who can’t work from their homes. The first people I think about are the medics. I also think about the people, who collect the garbage. those who support the sanitation, drinking water, electricity and internet networks in function. Last but not least I think about policemen. There are probably such initiatives, but I have not learned about them. It is clear that I am really impressed by the very high level of human solidarity I see! We need to stay home, as much as possible, to limit as much as possible our contact with other people, so that we could prevent the virus from spreading, but all those initiatives contribute to the mutual support between people. That is how people can resolve their problems, without direct contact with one another. 

Recently, some criticism at the address of EU has been made. It was said that the EU didn’t take measures at European level against the spread of the pandemic and that the European countries are not sufficiently solidary. How correct are these criticisms? What instruments for reactions stay at the disposal of the EU? Isn’t the EU too overburdened and slow in its reaction, thus being unable to oppose the pandemic?

As far as I understand, it is a criticism, which I understand, but also consider unfounded. I understand it in two ways. The first is that at the level of common people there is an impression that the EU is almighty. This impression was cultivated by some politicians and opinion makers, who have criticised the EU in the past, saying that it suppresses us and exploits us. Equally, this impression was cultivated by other politicians and opinion makers, who had the enthusiasm that the EU brings us only good things. But apart from all those impressions there is the reality of the Treaties – the EU can do only as much as it is permitted to do. The member-states have not allowed themselves to action decisively. If the EU could act decisively, maybe the state of emergency would have been introduced directly by Bruxelles, not separately by Sofia and Bucharest. 

The second way, in which I understand this criticism, is related to the lack of precise and detailed information. There is filter, which doesn’t allow for these informations to reach the common people. There is a category of politicians and opinion makers, which have managed to “make-up” the actions of the European Commission. The result is that the people no longer follow these actions, but only listen to criticism mat the address of this excessive making-up. There is another category of politicians and opinion makers, which is interested to demonstrate that the measures and action of the European Commission are insufficient. It could be true. But the European Mechanism for Civil Protection and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative are two instruments, which can help decisively the member states. I think that the investment initiative resembles the support plan in Germany, but I could be wrong. The European Central Bank has also introduced measures for protection of the capital. It is important that our politicians know these instruments and use them. I remember that they could have been used in the case of the fire in the Bucharest club “Colectiv”, but the decisions were not taken in time. 

Even though I understand from where this criticism comes, I hope I have brought sufficient arguments to show that the claim is almost unfounded. It is not completely unfounded, because Italy still suffers. But if take a step back and ignore a bit this crisis, we know that for a lot of time the EU mechanisms need reform, especially with regard to the functioning of the Council of the EU. In the times of the electoral campaign for the European Parliament, a year ago, some of the deficiencies of the Council of the EU’s functioning were seen publicly. It’s important not to forget that at the EU level the Council is the most important decisional organism – there are placed the representatives of the member-states. If the decision mechanism of the Council of the EU encourages each member-state to act only in self-interest, we can’t expect solidarity. This is a design effect, which we need to correct as soon as possible, indifferent from where we are now. In other words, if the member-states don’t want the Council of the EU can’t decide on anything. The result will be that the EU will appear to be disabled or overburdened. But asI show this is not the case in this very crisis – at the level of the European Commission were taken adequate and creative decisions. It remains for our politicians to use what the Commission offers. 

How ready is the health system in Romania for the pandemic of coronavirus?

I am not an expert on health policies. So my answer needs to be taken with precaution. It can be deduced from the official declarations that everything is under control, that the health system “has everything”, but society has great doubts on that. These doubts exist, because of two reasons. The first is that the trauma of “Colectiv” is still very recent in our memory. Let us don’t forget that unless the Hexipharma scandal was revealed, our hospitals would have used until today diluted disinfectants. So people would have been even more exposed to pandemic today. The second motive is that the medical personnel doesn’t live separately from the rest of society. Everyone of them has relative sna friends, to whom they cry out over the deficits, with which they confront. Two people told me that there are no sufficient protection suits. Had they been sufficient, there would probably be no private initiative for the acquisition of these equipments for the medical personnel. It could be that in the state of emergency these deficits are filled by acquisition or requisition. We could hope that things will get better. There is European statistics, which helps us to have concrete hopes. It looks like in Romania we have a doubled number of beds in comparison with the European medium. Therefore we have better logistical capacity to deal with the pandemic that Italy. I am sorry for what happens in Italy and Spain! And in all of the world. In the last few days I feel the social tensions direct in my belly. 

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