Posts tagged ‘Roumania’

Growing old in Roumania

In June 2011, for the first time since the revolution and before, I went back to Roumania, a beautiful, underestimated, yet poor country that, according to many today, made nothing out of its revolution – Romanians prefer to speak about “the events of december (1989)” – and in fact, would need another one to get life really going. I heard people complain that, under Ceauscescu, at least every citizen had a job. During my travels, I noticed a widespread criticism on the allegedly corrupt present strong man, former army officer Traian Băsescu.

Roumania, although part of the European Union, hardly ever hits the world news. It is a forgotten country. In Belgium the word ‘Roumanian’ is associated with ‘criminality’, due to Roumanians, among many other nationalities, involved in thefts and robberies, particularly in Brussels. Yet, I have always known the Roumanians as a very hospitable, warm, and open-minded people with a rich identity. So, I went back to Bucharest, to Buzău, Sibiu, Moreni, Râmnicu Sărat, Trgovište, as a photographer, without any hope of finding anyone who would ever publish my photos.

As I was then working for the Flemish Ministry for Public Health, and got to know a lot about that subject, my focus was on health care: in general and psychiatric hospitals, at people’s home places, in institutions for the mentally handicapped, in old people’s homes, … Progress has been made in Roumania, for sure. It struck me, however, how the Roumanian Yellow Cross, organizing home care even at remote locations on the countryside, has to fight to survive. I once asked the nurse I joined on her trip to patients living isolated on the countryside, what these people’s fate would be without her and other Yellow Cross nurses. She answered: “Adieu”, and with a slow move of her hand made it exactly clear what she meant. For the efforts of the Roumanian Yellow Cross see Crucea Alb Galbena.

The demographic evolution is not any different in Roumania than it is in any Western-European country. Its population ages quickly. The elderly are many. Everywhere in Europe, governments realize that residential care cannot be the solution to this demographic evolution, and that a transfer to well-organized home care will be the only way to sustain a human society. Roumania unfortunately, is missing this boat.

Children of a lesser God

After the fall of communism in the 1990s, the world saw horrific images of abused children living in deplorable conditions in state-run Roumanian orphanages. Those images and stories led to an international uproar and an outpouring of humanitarian aid to the country. Fifty years ago, declining birth rates prompted the government to outlaw abortion and contraception. Birth rates soon doubled, and many Romanian families – especially the nearly quarter who live in poverty – could not care for their children. Having a (mentally) handicapped child was/is a dishonor. The children are abandoned. Their parents never visit them.

After the first furor about the abandoned children died down, most people assumed the situation had gotten better. So did I.

I was thankful to be allowed to visit the center for mentally disabled ‘adults’ in Râmnicu Sărat. Great improvements have been made. The number of children living in orphanages and institutions has dropped by more than 60 percent. What Roumania has done in 10 years is in many ways impressive. Children and adults with disabilities are no longer written off. Yet, the sick and disabled still often end up in institutions, abandoned by their parents.

I could see that the staff at Râmnicu Sărat was deeply involved, which causes some to feel desperate, others to invest in loving care. One nurse openly told me she worked at the center by lack of any alternative – it is hard to find a job in the region – and that she hardly coped. The big problem is: there are so few of them and so many ‘patients’ demanding a lot of attention.

Some of these children had lived in such isolation that it took months before they accepted human contact.

But all things considered: this is good news. Things have changed for the better.

No pay, no cure

In 2011 I visited several hospitals throughout Roumania. What struck me the most was the difference between private hospitals (very modern and very well equipped) and the public hospitals that look dismal and where time seems to have stopped while the country was still under communist rule.

In November 2011, the Government announced and proposed a completely new healthcare system. The main changes were: the privatization of all hospitals and public clinics, the replacement of the public health insurance with private insurances and the mandatory contribution to a private healthcare contractor, where all public health care used to be free. President Băsescu wanted the hospital management to be privatized. Doctors can now negotiate their salary, which makes little difference because they in fact already did. The project however, was withdrawn in January 2012. It caused great controversy and received extensive media coverage. As a result of the proposal a state secretary resigned. This caused protests in Bucharest and other major cities in Roumania. The protests ceased on the 6th of February.

The medical system is affected by a lack of medical staff. This is due to the low wages and the attractive working conditions in other countries. Many excellent medics and nurses left their country to work in the medical system in Italy, Spain, France, Belgium.

Another issue is the high level of out-of-pocket spending by patients. Due to the bribing that is “traditionally” practiced ever since the communist era. A great many patients told me it is common practice to bribe doctors and nurses. “If you don,’t, your simply don’t get a good treatment.” I also heard many complaints about an almost general lack of basic supplies in public hospitals, such as tampons. Patients know very well they have to bring certain supplies (like tampons) themselves.

To care (like that nurse)

In June 2011, for the first time since the revolution and before, I went back to Roumania, a beautiful, underestimated, yet poor country that, according to many today, made nothing out of its revolution – Roumanians prefer to speak about “the events of december (1989)” – and in fact, would need another one to get life really going. I heard people complain that, under Ceauscescu, at least every citizen had a job. During my travels, I noticed a widespread criticism on the allegedly corrupt present strong man, former army officer Traian Băsescu.

Roumania, although part of the European Union, hardly ever hits the world news. It is a forgotten country. In Belgium the word ‘Roumanian’ is associated with ‘criminality’, due to Roumanians, among many other nationalities, involved in thefts and robberies, particularly in Brussels. Yet, I have always known the Roumanians as a very hospitable, warm, and open-minded people with a rich identity. So, I went back to Bucharest, to Buzău, Sibiu, Moreni, Râmnicu Sărat, Trgovište, as a photographer, without any hope of finding anyone who would ever publish my photos.

As I was then working for the Flemish Ministry for Public Health, and got to know a lot about that subject, my focus was on health care: in general and psychiatric hospitals, at people’s home places, in institutions for the mentally handicapped, in old people’s homes, … Progress has been made, for sure.

It struck me, however, how the Roumanian Yellow Cross, organizing home care even at remote locations on the countryside, has to fight to survive. I asked a nurse I joined on here trip to patients living isolated on the countryside, what these people’s fate would be without her and other Yellow Cross nurses. She answered: “Adieu”, and with a slow move of her hand, made it exactly clear what she meant.

The demographic evolution is not any different in Roumania than it is in any Western-European country. Its population ages quickly. The elderly are many. Everywhere in Europe, governments realize that residential care cannot be the solution to this demographic evolution, and that a transfer to well-organized home care will be the only way to sustain a human society. Roumania unfortunately, is missing this boat.

See also: Crucea Alb-Galbena

Part of reality

These are a few photos I took because, initially, during my trip through Roumania, I did not get to see much else. I was kind of diverted to innocent locations: modern kindergartens with modern facilities, particularly interesting while nearly all kids happened to be on vacation. The local officials showed me the toilets, the bathroom, the cloakroom. All, I must say, modern, clean, in very good condition. Of course, thesis only part of reality, yet, it indicates relevant progress. Further on, I concentrated on other locations.

I do not know to what extent the harrowing conditions in which Roumania’s abandoned and orphaned children, as I saw them 15 years ago, live today. Recent social policy changes have introduced a process of mass desinstitutionalization. Sixty-thousand children have now been reunited with their birth families or settled in foster families or group homes. I was told, though, that the problems that beset these children – attention deficit disorder, anxiety, learning disorders, … – are a serious concern.