The decay of the Romanian education system has created a fertile ground for Covid conspiracy theories, many of which originate in right-wing America. Maria Cernat joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast produced in collaboration with Other News.
This podcast was published on 27 August 2020 at the site The Analysis.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. This episode is produced in collaboration with Other News. Other News is an international press platform that disseminates analysis, insights, and information about global issues in English, Spanish, and Italian. And you can find it at Other-News.info.
This podcast is a continuing part of a series I’m doing about countries that rarely get talked about in the North American press, but should be, of course, every country should be.
But these are particularly large and important countries that get almost no attention at all. Today, we’re going to talk about Romania, which is the seventh most populated country in Europe. It joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. Romania has become one of the worst countries affected by the COVID pandemic. There have been 75,000 cases so far, 3154 deaths, and there has recently been a very large spike in infections.
Now joining us to talk about the current situation in Romania, as well as give us some of the historical context is Maria Cernat. She’s a graduate of the faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences and the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest, where she completed her Ph.D. in philosophy.
She’s currently an assistant professor at the Department of Communication, Foreign Languages, and Public Relations of Titu Maiorescu University. And she also teaches communications and public relations of the National University of Political Studies and Political Administration. Thanks very much for joining us, Maria.
Thanks very much for having me, Paul.
So start with what’s going on in terms of the pandemic. Why is Romania spiking so badly, and why is the country becoming one of the countries most affected in Europe?
Well, there are several reasons. First of all, we had some very good measures being taken, and everybody was afraid. The public responded pretty well to the government’s recommendation to stay at home. And we stayed at home for almost two months and we saw that the for corona pandemic, the number of cases was getting smaller and smaller. So it was a good time they thought, the politicians, to renounce some of those very harsh regulations. But I think it was also the pressure of the business elite; they wanted to start the economy again.
There was always this obsession with starting the economy again, but not the economy in general. They haven’t thought of changing the economy so that it would take into consideration the pandemic. No, they wanted to have the good-old-ways economy that would profit only some people, and to leave things just the way they were, and not take into consideration the fact that we have a pandemic, OK.
So they opened up bars. They started to allow people to move from place to place. That was one part of the issue. Another source of the problem was that Romania was a neo-liberal country and dominated by the neo-liberal ideology for almost three decades, since 1989. And we have this very individualistic and selfish perspective where we don’t care. I say that the social issue is so thin that people don’t care. They don’t even want to wear masks in public.
Another source of the problem was the fact that the informational environment is so corrupted in Romania. What do I mean by that? And this is not a particular aspect only of Romania. Why do I mean by the informational context? There are a lot of conspiracy theories that circulate. Some of them even have a source in the United States, and a lot of evangelical groups that have representatives here in Romania spread conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, about the masks being a device of the 5G antennas from the Chinese wanting to control us, about the idea that the pandemic is only a tool for Bill Gates to come to Romania and vaccinate everybody and implant chips into our heads.
And believe it or not, there are a lot of people that actually fall for this type of nonsense right now.
Well, we can believe it, Trump has a pretty solid 40 percent. And people that are likely to vote, and the large section of the people that are likely to vote for Trump in the United States believe much of the same stuff.
This is also a result of 30 years of neo-liberal reforms that ended up closing a lot of the schools, and a major decay in education in Romania. That leaves people very prone to believe this type of nonsense, I mean, the most preposterous and delirious conspiracy theories that you can imagine. So, that would not be possible without a major lack of trust, without a mishandling of the whole crisis by the authorities that don’t have a communication plan, a communication strategy, that don’t engage in communication campaigns to have citizens listen to them and to scientific evidence.
So they are left alone in this very deregulated informational system, media system, to think for themselves.
And another source of conspiracy theories are not the mainstream press, but Facebook groups, private groups, WhatsApp groups, where people send messages with the label, “I’m not saying that you should believe me, but listen to this,” you know, and this is how those conspiracy theories spread.
And you’re saying that people are not wearing masks because of this.
Yes. A lot of people refuse to wear a mask, and we even have demonstrations and protests against the masks. They don’t want to make this small effort to protect others.
How connected is this to the right-wing American politics where you see much of the same kind of phenomenon?
Well, I think it’s scary how much it is connected to that, because here in Romania, the right-wing seems to emulate and to mimic the worst part of the right-wing of American politics.
And I’m not aware if they are truly in contact and receive, I don’t know, information, or are in contact with those people, or are they just emulating and mimicking what they’re seeing.
Steve Bannon’s been very actively organizing in Europe, and interesting enough, Steve Bannon was just arrested for fraud in New York. So we’ll see if that affects his activities. Are you aware of Bannon’s activity in Romania?
No, I’m not aware of his activities. I am aware of some sort of Q group that I know is related to some sort of evangelical movement in the United States. I’m also aware of a praying group in the Romanian parliament that has links to the very conservative politicians in the United States. And what is interesting to see here is that that conservative praying group in the Romanian parliament gathers politicians from the right, the liberals, and also from the Social Democrats.
And that’s very interesting to see how this power structure gathers politicians from both ends of the political spectrum here in Romania. So it is no wonder that a few months ago we had a law, an initiative, where the liberals shook hands with the Social Democrats, and they voted in a law, saying that all discussion about gender should be banned in Romanian educational institutions. And luckily, President Yohana sent it back for further debate in the parliament, but it passed the parliament.
Can you believe it? This happened only a few months ago, and it was that the initiative of this praying group in the Romanian parliament, and they came up with all the conservative nonsense that you are all so familiar with; that the LGBT community is going to come and take our children and transform them into gay and lesbians. Romania is presented as a besieged fortress that is going to be attacked by what the right-wing intellectuals here call Sexo-Marxism. So we have this label for the progressive thinkers of the left.
They call them Sexo-Marxists. I think we are original in this type of labeling.
This kind of persecution has been going on very intensely in Bulgaria. What’s behind the strategy? What do they think they gain by this kind of persecution?
Well, I think a lot of them are true believers unfortunately. They actually believe that Romania should stick to traditional values. I’ll remind you that in 2018 we had a referendum initiated also by these conservative groups, related to conservative groups in North America, the USA, and Russia. They wanted to give a very narrow definition of “the family”, they wanted “the family” to be defined in the Romanian Constitution, as the union between a man and a woman, and that’s it. That’s the definition of the family. And luckily for us, the referendum did not pass and it was rejected.
But they have this initiative and now they came back with this crazy law about banning discussion about gender.
So let’s get back to some of the underlying basics.
In 1989, when Ceausescu fell, and the West was so excited with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, there was great hope that this was going to usher in a time where your East Europeans would achieve a standard of living equal to that of West Europeans. Joining the West was really going to solve all the economic and social problems. So what’s the scorecard here? How has that actually worked out?
Well, as I told on several occasions, I lived through the revolution, and I remember my sister was a participant since she was a student in Timișoara, the first city when the revolution started. And I have very vivid memories of those days. We were crying, literally crying near the radio station when we first heard the song that is now the national anthem, “Wake Up Romanians!” And we thought that we were going to be at least as rich as the top one percent in the United States.
I mean, we literally believed that now the gates of heaven are open for us. And what followed was a complete disaster. I mean, let me give you some numbers. 10% of the households in Romania own 62% of the wealth.
Let’s do that again, 10% own 62%?
Own 62%. So we have huge inequality. The minimum wage is only 460 euros, and what is even sadder here is that 60% of the workers earn the minimum wage.
Now, hold on, let’s translate that. The minimum wage is how many euros?
Four hundred and sixty euros. 460 euros.
And that’s for what kind of time frame? Per day? Per…?
Per month. So that in dollars might be around 500 dollars a month?
500 dollars a month, yes. And 60% of workers earn the minimum wage.
Now the cost of goods is not really cheaper.
How do people live on 500 dollars a month?
Well, there are very harsh conditions, and unfortunately, nobody cares. We have the right-wing government of Triangle School, that’s talked about socially assisted people, and talked about poverty as being some kind of sin, and managed to impose this type of ideology. And nobody is talking about the poverty of the wage, the people that are actually laborers that are on the labor market. And it is not very, I mean, 60% of the people earn this type of money.
What happened to these people when the country closed down for two months during the pandemic? Did they get support?
Well, they got some unemployment aid, of course, and the rents were being frozen, and there were no evictions. So they got some support, but not all of them, because a lot of workers didn’t have an official contract. They work on the black market, so to speak. And they were the most affected by the crisis since they were no longer able to pay for basic needs.
So 32.5% of the population of Romania lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, and those sorts of institutions that make statistics and try to see what the situation is here. And what’s even worse is that 32% of Romania’s children live in poverty. So a lot of people are not living the dream that we thought would come true in 1989.
And we also have racialized poverty. That means that 76.8% of the Roma population lives in poverty. So most of the Roma live in desperate poverty. And they were sent back because most of them go to Western European countries where they beg, and they make a living like that for their families, so they were sent back here with no support because most of them don’t even have an ID card because the Romanian state asks for a person to have a stable address in order to give them an I.D. card.
So a lot of these people don’t even have that.
So how did we end up in this situation, this grim situation where there is so much poverty?
It was a constant attack on public institutions because back in 1946, we had almost 80% of the people being illiterate.
And of course, in Romania, anticommunism is a religion. And saying even a slightly good thing about communism would make you public enemy number one. But I would say that it was during the communist time that this high percentage of illiterate people went down. But now we are coming back to that. Just imagine that only 38% of the students enrolled in the first grade 12 years ago managed to get their final exams after 12 years of school.
Only 38%, so we have a huge number of students that do not make it until the 12th grade because the neoliberal government’s closed down schools. Just to give you some numbers, there were 1781 schools closed until 2013. The total number of schools right now is around 6000. So a lot of schools were closed during the neoliberal government.
I’m talking here about the neo-liberal, but I should make a point that even the Social Democrats, who call themselves SOCIAL Democrats, OK, closed down schools and took one of the most neo-liberal reforms in this country. And the sad thing is that now social democracy lost is no longer a legitimate option since they were even worse at some points than the Liberal government. We had a Ministry of Finance that wanted to abolish the minimum wage, and it was from the Social Democrats.
And this supposedly encourages foreign investment.
Well, let me tell you what it encourages. It encourages Romania to become some sort of Bangladesh of Europe, you know, to be the country of cheap labor, to be the country where firms come because our laborers work as hard as the workers in China, and in even harsher conditions. You know, we sold ourselves for the investors as the country of cheap labor and unskilled labor. We destroyed our industry. We sold it for nothing.
Now we have no industry at all. We have no capacity, and no ability to exploit our natural resources.
And we have people that work for very low wages. And we also have another problem; we are the country with the most people who migrated away in times of peace. I mean, millions of Romanians went to work abroad since there were no good jobs here. And that meant a huge social disaster. A lot of children were abandoned to be supported by relatives. And we have huge numbers of suicides among the youngsters and very high levels of depression.
And we also have people who come back to Romania burned down, destroyed, by the very harsh conditions that they accepted in order to make a living.
So it is a social problem. Even for a short period, it seemed like a model of economic. Success, because this is how the story goes, isn’t it, you go to the West, then you gain a lot of money. It is so good that we have this freedom to sell our labor for, well, whoever wants to buy it, so we can sell our labor force abroad and earn some money. But nobody talked about the social costs and the disaster that was accompanying this process, because people are not robots.
They have families, they have bodies that are being destroyed while accepting the harsh conditions of labor. And when they come back, they come back and they use the public health system in Romania.
Now, I know that people hated the political repression under Ceausescu and the same thing in the other Eastern Bloc countries. But there actually was a very advanced educational system, and there was a pretty advanced health care system. What has happened to the health care system in Romania?
The public health care system was under attack from several directions. First of all, we have this idea of efficiency. Of making the hospital as efficient as the factory, you know, and transferring this managerial ethos from the corporation to the hospital. This whole idea that the state is the worst administrator because people are corrupt and they’re stealing money from the budget, and we have to replace the management conducted by your doctors and specialists in the health care system the managers specializing in court, because they would be very careful with the money, as if the whole goal of the hospital would be not to save lives, but to save money.
So we have this so ideological, how should I say, nonsense, being uttered in public space so many times, and people actually believe it. And in 2011, the government did the ranking of the hospitals in terms of their efficiency. But, let us note here that it was economic efficiency. They didn’t care that maybe that hospital was vital because people living in villages could not afford to go to a big city to a hospital. So it meant the difference between life and death for the people living there.
No, they did it in terms of economic efficiency, and how many beds do they have, and how effective it is in economic terms to keep the hospital open, and so on and so forth. Nothing about the social costs of such measures.
How is the health care system coping with COVID and the pandemic?
Let me tell you from the 461 hospitals, they closed down 67 hospitals, and that meant that a lot of people living in rural areas had to go far away for basic problems. And now the system, how is it coping? Let me tell you what happened before the pandemic. We had a minister of public health that came from the private sector, that wanted to further attack the system of public health.
And what did he do? He basically wanted to privatize the emergency health care system. In what way? We have some funds that come from the National House of Insurance. So it is basically the public insurance, health insurance, that everybody has to contribute to. He wanted to allow private hospitals to gain access to that money, and he wrote a law. And luckily, the law was not accepted because, ironically, the pandemic came.
And guess who were the first to close down the doors of their hospitals?
The private ones! They had the nerve to close down the hospitals during the pandemics because it was not efficient, you know, to leave them open. Can you believe that? And they relied on the government giving help to the doctors and to their employees. And they closed down.
By the word not efficient, you mean not profitable.
Not profitable, of course. In Romania, we have only this definition; how much money can we gain? It is only related to the money, not to other aspects.
But then what’s happening in terms of the politics and the consciousness of people? If 60% of the population is living in poverty essentially, and getting smashed by the pandemic, what’s the state of the left in Romania?
Is there any growing support amongst the poor for a progressive left-wing solution?
No, because they are fearful, and they are very prone to being influenced by the conservative agenda. And the problem is that we have a small party that wants democracy and solidarity. It was, I think, the first political party that came to life after 1989 that assumed only a left-wing agenda.
OK, but the problem here is that you see the working class is quite conservative, and they are not sensitive to problems like gender ideology, like gender identity, like transgender ideology.
Like these are things that are debated in the university, like having to write the name Latino with an X because everybody should choose their gender and not have Latinos, but Latinx, or not have workers, but workersx.
You know, these types of discussions are mainly focusing on things that the 60% of the workers that I’ve told you about, I don’t think they are very sensitive to this type of discussion. And not only that, they are not very sensitive, this is the kind of discussion that actually scares them.
Well, then why have it? Why wouldn’t the left focus on the economic well-being of the majority of the working class, and fight for progressive solutions on these economic questions and, you know, sort of later deal with some of the gender issues?
Because if this is pushing workers into the conservative camp politically, you would think that’s counterproductive.
I don’t think the Romanian left is prepared to give up their internal fights and their academic debates yet, and engage in some political fight, because when you have to fight politically, you have to take a very serious goal and fight for it. Then go to men, talk to the workers, and engage in this type of activity.
For the time being, I’m very happy. Don’t get me wrong, that we have this type of conversation, because the conservatives are attacking minorities, and it is important to protect feminism, because, in Romania, 55% of the people think that rape is acceptable in some situations, according to the Gender Equality Index in the European Union. So we have a huge problem because also almost a quarter of the under-aged mothers in the European Union are in Romania. A lot of the people that are being trafficked, almost 40% of the people that are being sexually exploited at the level of the European Union as a result of trafficking in human beings, come from Romania.
So we have a huge problem here as you can see. This is the current dilemma. We have a lot of poor people that are conservatives, and a lot of leftists who are very progressive in terms of identity and gender-related issues. And frankly, I don’t see a solution right now. I don’t see a solution for the time being because none of the people that I’m talking about here want to give up their position. They are true believers, and that’s a good thing.
They are not people who are following politics for money, or for the power, or something like that. But this is in the end, what you have to do. You have to gain elections. You are not there to have an academic debate. You have to earn elections, and in order to do that, you have to appeal to the masses.
And there’s no sort of militancy or progressive left kind of organizing amongst the workers? Whatever there is is in the intelligentsia? Like, what is the state of the trade unions? Are there any unions that actually have some backbone?
I’m glad that you asked that. We have two sources of the problem. Some of the unions who are centralized, the Monceau thinking organizations that had leaders that unfortunately, a lot of times made deals with the power, and a lot of times they became politicians. So they switch sides. You know, this is one of the problems, the whole structure of the union is not coping well with the very versatile and dynamic forms of today’s capitalism, and with the precariat and the fact that you no longer have an industry with a lot of people gathered together in one place.
You have workers working three jobs here and there. So the whole structure of our unions can’t cope with this very volatile environment in the present capitalist society. The second one is that in 2012, we had this government, this right-wing government, that basically dismantled the unions. It made it so difficult to form a union, it made it easier to fire union leaders.
So it was a huge step taken against the unions and unionizing. And they also dismantled the collective labor contract. So every section, every part of the industry had this form of collective working contract, and that was dismantled in 2012. So nowadays, the unions are not very powerful, and a lot of people are afraid to join the unions because in 2012 they made it so much easier to fire union leaders.
So now it’s very difficult to rely on this type of structure. I don’t know where the hope would come from right now. Probably some of the progressives, because we also have a political party, the Communist Party, that is nostalgic in a way. They try to idealize the time when Ceausescu was a leader, and people are not very prone to believe that, because there were a lot of things that were very traumatic.
Just to give you an example, in 1966, Ceausescu gave a law banning abortions. And while, of course, he encouraged women to go, and work, and to integrate into the labor force, and that was a good thing, that was why we were among the first countries to have a high percentage of women working in STEM, what you call STEM science, hardcore science. The bad thing was that once he banned abortions in 1966, the Romanian women became the property of the state, and their uterus became the property of the state.
And don’t think that this was only some sort of regulation. No, they had very meticulous ways of putting it into place. I mean, Romanian women did not have access to contraception, to sexual education.
All the burden of making Romania a great nation was placed on Romanian women. Ceausescu had this idea that we have to have a lot of children. But this was done while destroying the public health and destroying the well-being of Romanian women. We had almost 10,000 women die because of back-alley abortions.
Has it gotten any better now?
Well, of course, after 1989, the first measure that was taken was that abortions were legal again. Just imagine that we had gynecologists going to factories and searching women to see if they are pregnant or not.
Just imagine how intrusive, abusive, and crazy the system was.
Romania, in terms of the conservative politics, especially on issues of gender, and women, and such, culturally, ideologically are closer to the state of politics in Russia, especially Putin and the strength of the Russian Orthodox Church.
So like culturally, ideologically, there seems to be a closer kinship with what’s going on in Russia. On the other hand, Romania seems very firmly in the American camp. I see that Romania may allow an increase in U.S. soldiers to be based in Romania. So how Romanians feel about this, even geographically being sort of, you know, in sort of buffer zone, I know Romania is part of NATO, but as a NATO country, it’s one of the closest ones to Russia.
What is the feeling amongst Romanians in terms of American-Russian contention?
Well, if Romanians heard that you compare them to the Russians, they would feel very offended. Here in Romania, we had some sort of cult, or religion almost, of anti-Russian sentiment. And we have people that go on live television to tell the same stories. How the Russian threat is here. They use certain phrases, and I heard them so many times that I can talk like them, you know? So, “the Russian threat is here. Russia is engaged in a hybrid war against Romania. We have to show that we take into consideration the alliance with the NATO partners,” and stuff like that. And they are repeating all these things over and over again.
And just to give you a clear idea what I mean, when the news surfaced that maybe Russia discovered a viable form of a vaccine, the Romanians started to scream from the top of their keyboards on the social networks, that “this must be a lie. You shouldn’t believe what they are saying. I would rather be dead than accept the Russian vaccine,” just to see how much irrationality and hatred dominate the public sphere when it comes to Russia, even though we are very close, as you say, in a very conservative society.
But the Romanians tend to be very prone to lick the boots of the US and to be the only ones or the first one to give a lot of money, like four billion dollars they gave to buy missiles from the US, and they were very proud.
Yes. And military equipment, not just missiles, military equipment. And they bought it for four billion dollars. And that’s a lot of money for a very poor country like Romania. But we are among the very few that achieved the goal of spending two percent of the GDP on military equipment.
Even Germany does not do it, even though they are a NATO member, but we are doing it as a poor country. This is the situation. We have a political elite formed by cowards. And I have plenty of criticism to address to Vladimir Putin, I do not condone anything of what he does. He stayed in power for as long as I can remember. I think I was in the seventh grade when he came to power, and now I’m a professor, and I think probably when I retire he will still be there.
So, I’m not condoning it, this type of attitude among the Romanian politicians, I find it to be very troubling because, while you in the United States have an ocean between you and Russia, we don’t have that kind of distance geographically speaking. And there’s no point in making all these threats and making all these declarations against Russia since we are a very small, poor country, relying on the US to come and save us if the Russians decide to hit us.
And why would they?
And why would they.
I mean, it’s such a crazy notion that somehow it’s in Russia’s interest to go invade some of these countries. What do they get out of it except maybe an armed resistance against them? I mean, it just makes no sense at all.
Yeah, well, the Romanian intellectuals who are engaged, I think some of them gained something, and they should secretly praise Vladimir Putin because it gives them a reason to exist, you know? And to be public intellectuals and important in the public agenda. I don’t know what they would have done without him. They owe him.
All right, well this has been very good, Maria, let’s do this again. So we’ll come back to you in a little while, and we can talk more broadly about what’s going on in Eastern Europe. But thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you very much for having me on your show, Paul.
And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Photo: Maria Cernat (source: Maria Cernat)
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Paul Jay (born 1951) is a journalist and a filmmaker. He is the founder and host of theAnalysis.news, a news analysis service. He was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network (TRNN). Jay was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario and holds dual-citizenship with the United States.