Timisoara, Romania, Jul 21 – After almost four months of treating coronavirus patients in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, doctor Virgil Musta is not only facing a surge in new daily cases, but also a string of conspiracy theories.
“People are not respecting the rules any more,” the 62-year-old told AFP. “Three weeks ago we had one new case a day, now we have about 40.”
In a country where doctors rarely speak out, Musta has become a constant presence on social media and the local press, talking about his work at Victor Babes hospital.
“I have to act on two fronts — the professional one where I treat patients and the informational one where I try to explain the facts to people,” said Musta, who is also head of Timisoara’s infectious disease department.
The east European nation had stemmed the spread of COVID-19 under a strict two-month lockdown, but cases have jumped since it was lifted in mid-May — with a peak of 889 new infections on Saturday.
This has led to at least a dozen European countries re-imposing travel restrictions on people arriving from one of the EU’s poorest member states.
Romania, with a population of almost 20 million, has to date reported more than 38,000 coronavirus infections and over 2,000 deaths.
– Discharged by demand –
The caseload spike comes against a backdrop of multiplying conspiracy theories peddled online and in the streets in a country known for its poor healthcare system.
In Bucharest, a few hundred coronasceptics — holding religious icons, the national flag and signs that read “I believe in GOD, not in COVID” — frequently protest against what they call a “sanitary dictatorship”.
“The figures are inflated for the benefit of the producers of protective masks,” says one protester, Ionut Moraru, while Marcela, a pensioner, fears being “forcibly interned just for a sneeze in a public place”.
“I must have the right to choose whether I want to be hospitalised or not,” says Costin Tanasescu, a 49-year-old entrepreneur in the construction industry.
In early July, the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory hospitalisation — imposed under the two-month state of emergency — violated “fundamental rights” and was illegal.
Since then, almost a thousand COVID-19 patients have discharged themselves from hospitals, according to official figures.
One of those who didn’t want to be hospitalised, Cristian Focsan, said on Facebook that he believed he could fight the virus on his own and didn’t want to occupy a bed, possibly needed by a seriously ill person.
But the 43-year-old economist’s condition worsened, and he ended up being placed on a ventilator in hospital.
After tough negotiations between the liberal government and the left-wing opposition, parliament adopted a new text this month that allows hospitals to keep people who tested positive for the virus under observation for 48 hours, even if they have no symptoms.
For hospitalisations beyond this time period, the public health department must approve each case, according to the new law, which comes into force on Tuesday — too late for some of those battling the virus’s spread.
– New mobile ICU unit –
As the Victor Babes hospital in Timisoara is full, a 12-bed mobile intensive care unit was deployed over the weekend in the inner courtyard.
Inside the building in what used to be the paediatric unit — and where drawings of cartoon figures adorn every wall — doctors are now treating COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.
A woman lying on a bed mourns her late husband who died recently after getting infected.
“I want my friends to see me here, especially those that don’t believe the virus is real. It’s not normal for a 34-year-old man with no health problems to die”, she told AFP.
A 50-year-old man from Timisoara recently refused treatment with remdesivir because he didn’t want “experiments done on him”, but his state deteriorated and he died in the ICU unit, according to Musta.
Others who tested positive left hospital and took public transport home, he adds.
In other parts of the country, two men who tested positive and who refused hospitalisation have died at home recently, while in Dambovita in the south, six patients, saying they would be cared for at home, infected 20 members of their families, according to local health authorities.
Musta says he tries to argue against theories that the virus is not dangerous “as a way of prevention”.
“This war is not going to be won in the hospital, but inside communities,” he says.