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March 29, 2023

The protests of poverty

The endless series of social protests that are inflaming Romania is very diverse in terms of demands. Each protester complains about the problems of day-to-day existence and, with unrest having reached all professions and age categories, from pupils and students to retirees, it is easy to explain the diversity of economic and social demands. On the other hand, in political terms, protesters concentrate on urging the resignation of the president and government, followed by early elections. This explains why many analysts tend to give them a preponderantly political character.

But the real source of this unrest, which often takes a clearly political path, is still represented by the economic and social setbacks that have been plaguing Romania over the last two decades. Despite the diversity of forms they embrace, despite being insistently evoked in the streets assaulted by protesters, these can still be reduced to several essential contradictions.

Two of the most serious and pressing such contradictions, with long-term implications, are these: a) the scarcity of available jobs vs. the surplus of jobless; b) the need to stop the demographic collapse of Romania vs. the precarious health state.

The soaring unemployment aggravates not just the general health state, but also the education system, social benefits and the money available for pensions, favouring the migration of labour force, to the detriment of the modern condition of the Romanian society. If, in the advanced states of the EU, unemployment sometimes generates a value-based selection process on the labour market, in Romania it negatively affects the very quality of labour. In both the public and private sectors, layoffs mainly affect the personnel with medium and higher education, because the Romanian labour market favours a low degree of professional training. This explains why more than 30 pc of jobless have medium and higher education, which is a percentage much superior to the share of the Romanian population represented by these two professional categories. And such a percentage tends to double in July, when approximately 200,000 young Romanians graduate the higher education institutions. With the existing jobs being blocked, the huge majority of these youths go directly into unemployment.

This explains the increasing extent of illegal labour in Romania, despite the “defense” measures the government is bragging about. Illegal labour comes in hand with an increasing amount of tax evasion. If they were able to cut just 50 pc of this tax evasion, authorities would find money to double the annual budget for investments. As main measure of defence against unemployment, rulers often resort to professional re-conversion, whose only effect often is stimulating unskilled labour, with low productivity. Most jobs available now fall into this category – bodyguards, shanghai massage girls, hairstylists – and only few employers still seek highly-trained professionals. Even the much-boasted measure taken by the government, of stimulating for one year the companies that hire jobless, had effects contrary to what was intended, because employers usually hire jobless for the time covered by the government’s incentives, and then fire them when the benefits end… and the cycle recommences. From a well-meant measure, the idea turned into its very contrary, especially for high-school and university graduates, who are the first to suffer from the effects of unemployment and also the first to leave the country, seeking a better life elsewhere.

After the first variant of the Health Law was withdrawn, a new version of the same document is now on public debate, also by University Square protesters. A first bone of contention in the new draft law is the structure of the basic package of medical services, which must include all the medical services, medicines and other products a contributor to the public system of insurances is entitled to. After defining this package, the next step is establishing which medical services will fall under the incidence of the co-payment system. This confrontation between free services and those that need co-payment turns this base package of medical services into the Gordian Knot of any Health Law in Romania. Why? Because the health state of Romanian population is critical, while the financial means of the state are disastrous. Here, rulers cannot use their preferred method of copying a foreign model, because all the countries of the EU avail of budgets that can cover the expenses implied by the base package – something Romania does not have. While we are spending some EUR 200 for the health of each citizen of Romania, the European average reaches EUR 2,000. Even the Czech Republic and Hungary spend approximately EUR 1,000 per capita to keep their citizens healthy. Then, can the basic package of medical services in Romania be 10 times smaller than the EU average? Let’s keep in mind that, for example, the incidence of uterine cancer in Romania is three times higher (28.96 pc) than in the EU (10.99 pc), while the mortality rate caused by this disease tops 16.1 for 100,000 women in Romania, against 4.11 in the EU.

Such interrogations gain a new meaning given that for some years, Romania is holding a painful top place in the EU in terms of child mortality, incidence of cardiovascular illnesses, kidney and lung diseases, diabetes and even AIDS. Meanwhile, the emigration of Romanian medical staff is beyond any European comparison. We export specialists and import the most expensive medicines, which only few Romanians can afford. The national industry of medicines was, and still is increasingly undermined, allowing foreign producers to make huge sales and profits in Romania. Of course, this situation was reached with support from local employees who, in exchange of hefty fees, decide that the medical treatments prescribed to Romanian patients are 70 pc composed of foreign, very expensive drugs. This is the reason for enforcing the co-payment system. In the “vision” of the Health minister, this means that “those who want more health must pay for it.”

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