Romania’s Collective Tragedy and its Chain Reactions

Posted on 18. November 2015

by Miruna Troncota

miruna-troncotaThe tragic incident at Bucharest’s Colectiv night club, which took the lives of 55 people and wounded more than 100 others was just the trigger. It was followed by the biggest street protests in Romania since the 1989 Revolution, with 70.000 people taking to the streets all over the country. The resignation of the Prime Minister created political instability and turmoil, as street protests continued. Only after 5 days of protests did President Iohannis finally decide to speak with the protesters. He did so on two occasions – in a „simulacrum” of public consultation with civil society representatives and protesters and during a chaotic visit on the streets on Sunday evening. To fight against the ones who were building political capital on a national tragedy became in itself a reason to continue the protests.

The tragedy and its aftermath pointed out some of the endemic ills of our political and administrative system, but also of our own mind-sets. I personally felt that in one week Romania went through one of the most profound crises of the last 26 years. At all levels. I would also use the word “revolution”, which is circulating a lot in the media, because this is exactly how I feel – that nothing will be the same after this tragedy. Neither for me, for my friends, for my generation or the generation of our parents. But I also start questioning– is it really so or is it just an illusion that Romania needs in order to restart itself? We all know that after a tragedy any person is vulnerable to self-delusion, but at the same time this vulnerability makes you more lucid and rational and sometimes makes you doubt absolutely everything you see or hear. Your rage against the system is as powerful as your hope for a new type of society. How do you know which is real? How could we make something constructive out of this disaster?

The issue of political responsibility

Like, me, there are many voices claiming that in only one night Romania has changed more profoundly than it did in the past 26 years. Almost everybody agrees that ”nothing will be the same again”. Others say that the fire at Colectiv Club in Bucharest forcefully brought a whole generation to adulthood. But in a way we all feel the same – that something very important has changed. The tragedy reminded everybody that not obeying the rules creates a chain reaction that leads to the loss of innocent lives. Corruption kills. It was something we all knew from before. But this time enough was enough. Soon after the three days of mourning, anger started to materialize, online and offline, in a political protest. On the streets you can feel both hope and despair for the future of Romania.

The blame game between authorities responsible for the tragic event soon started. A chain reaction of resigning politicians tempered the angry young protesters who were both mourning the victims and shouting their despair against a rotten political system. I had the feeling that the fury from the street protests mixed scape-goating with the genuine desire to find out who is responsible. Many suggested that we should all assume this as a collective guilt, because our ignorance fed corruption. Others say that the blame should be put on the state, and its representatives instead, because at individual level citizens are innocent. My own position combines both views – I believe that democracy is based on a strong partnership between the state and its citizens and responsibility is both in the hands of individuals and of state representatives. If the two sides ignore each other – then no good result can come up of it.

The overwhelming solidarity, civic mobilisation and voluntary aid was seconded also by a constant shifting of blame and severe lack of trust. The discussion soon boiled down to Us- The Citizens against Them – The Politicians. Everything is put into question. Solidarity in grief was quickly replaced by the suspicion that the authorities are hiding information from us, that they are hiding the truth, that they are incapable of finding a solution. Authorities lost almost all their credibility in the eyes of Romanian citizens. In a way, this was foreseeable. Romanians went through a “collective” trauma. The meaningless loss of innocent lives made no sense and they hurt not just the close relatives of the victims, but they were also intimately felt by each of us. A sort of collective guilt was put on our shoulders and everybody felt responsible to make a change. Some more than others. The citizens more than the state. But we all realised that citizens should contribute to how the state operates.

Misinformation and the handling of the aftermath

Grief, confusion and anger were the main feelings we all experienced in the past weeks. Day by day we would find out about new more casualties. The darkest day was Saturday, 7 November, when nine other people died, raising the total number of victims to 41 (but the situation has gotten worse because at the time I write this piece the number has already increased to 56).

Thousands of people took to the streets in all major cities of Romania and even after the resignation of the Prime Minister people continued to protest against the whole political system. The tension rose from day to day and conspiracy theories soon started to propagate in social media and in several media outlets, presenting horrific undocumented scenarios – like that there were actually there 80 victims in the night of the incident, but that the authorities kept them hidden in plastic bags so as to not alarm the population. On the streets of Bucharest some groups tried to create diversions and take over the protests, and similarly it happened in social media where alarmist unchecked information was spread like a virus causing panic, distrust and anger. We should be aware of the fact that any person exposed to such emotion becomes extremely vulnerable. This opens the way for misinformation and mass manipulation. In this context, I want to focus on a specific issue – the accusations against the ways in which the authorities and the medical body dealt with this unprecedented crisis.

Already on the night of the tragedy, 30 October, civil society representatives and journalists accused the Romanian Health Ministry of incompetency with the existing emergency hospitals in Bucharest not having enough capacity to treat the injured. For days in a row this made the news – our hospitals are not able to cope with the situation. This information was continuously contradicted by the former Health minister Nicolae Banicoiu, who claimed that all hospitals are well-equipped to support a great number of injured. It was a classical dialogue of the deaf. After already five days, a specialist from the UK, Dr Sarah Pape offered his expertise to treat several patients and declared that Bucharest has only two hospitals that are appropriately equipped to deal with such complicated cases of burning. This information made the media explode with accusations against the Healthy Ministry, saying it had misinformed and misguided public opinion. Although the same British doctor stated that actually not one European country has the capacity to deal with almost 80 such difficult cases of both intoxication and burn wounds, this information was less present in the news, because it did not help the alarmist tone of the accusations.

Several journalists also claimed that Romanian hospitals and the Health Ministry were guilty for the rising number of deaths; the former because of bad management, the latter because it refused to permit the transfer of the critically wounded to more modern hospitals across Europe. It was often suggested that local doctors opposed the transfers, and that the teams of foreign doctors who visited Bucharest were the ones who insisted on the transfers. These accusations were later on dismantled by foreign doctors who declared that they were contacted (at bilateral level) by the Romanian Health Ministry in the second day after the tragedy, and were asked for their help and expertise. By the end of last week the first transfers of patients to Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and Switzerland took place (by now a total of 37 critically injured were transferred outside of Romania, with nine of them losing their life in the process). But some of the accusations were also legitimate. An important piece of information that was made public is that the Romanian authorities decided not to activate the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which can provide expertise, funds and healthcare solutions from other EU member-states. The reason invoked by the Interim Prime Minister Sorin Campeanu for not formally asking the aid of the European Commission was that this situation did not fit the definition of a natural disaster or a crisis that a state cannot face on its own as defined by the European regulations. But this explanation was not a legitimate “excuse” and it was criticised by experts for being incorrect.

Transparency as a new basis for the future

To conclude, for me this debate was an illustration of how post-traumatic symptoms can have an impact on public discourse. Looking at this campaign of accusations against the Romanian Ministry of Health in dealing with the tragedy at a time of an unprecedented crisis, I think that the constructive part was that it showed us the critical importance of transparency in public affairs. At this point, it is essential for journalists, NGO representatives and protesters to protect themselves from misinformation spread in social media in order for the process to keep its initial intentions.

This chain of reactions also showed the acute lack of trust that Romanian citizens have in their institutions. No matter what these institutions do, they have little credibility in the eyes of the citizens. The debate also pointed out the shortage of doctors and the constant under-investment in health by various governments which have been long-standing problems in Romania. I believe this was an example of what really needs to change in our system and in our mind-sets. It reminded us that our overly critical attitude sometimes distorts reality and this also affects a good diagnosis, which is of critical importance in changing the system. It showed us that we always need to ask questions to authorities and they should always be transparent in their decisions, especially in a crisis situation. The continuous wave of protests was for me proof that people’s anger is not directed just against some names, as part of a short-term political agenda, but against a whole way of thinking and of doing politics which made the state fail in front of its citizens. From now on, that needs to change. The streets filled with anger and disappointment are asking for nothing more.