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The Coronavirus Diaries - Day 1 - March 16, 2020

A few days ago Romania seemed almost immune to the ravages of the Corona virus. While cases piled up in Italy, Western Europe, and Iran, there were fewer than 20 in all of Romania, until a week ago, after which the numbers began to surge in earnest. Today we were at 158 cases in the morning and we're at 168 tonight. Say what you will (it's benign, it's deadly) but one thing is certain, the Coronavirus spreads very quickly. This, coupled with the stories out of Italy is what sends people in a panic to buy up all the toilet paper. Luckily this has not been much of an issue in Romania - panic shopping is moderate at best - but we're already seeing a decrease in traffic, empty streets, and, the biggest shocker of all, personal space in line-ups.

Since our family is doing the #stayinghome challenge and since whatever the outcome, this will all go down in history, I want to start a diary of sorts. Just to write about daily life in Romania, as I see and hear it, during these contagious days of COVID19. I'll start with this past weekend...

March 13-15

On Friday the 13th,  after the 100th case was announced, the government called for emergency measures beginning on Monday. There was no specific definition given for the measures, certainly more restrictions on public gatherings, tougher penalties for those who break their legally imposed quarantine, but there was an understanding that the government would quickly decide when and what to impose.

On Saturday (14th) morning I went to buy a carton of milk at the corner shop. I noticed a home printed sign scotch taped on the side of the counter, asking shoppers to avoid paying in cash and to use cards instead.
"Are people actually paying by card?" I asked the lady behind the counter. She shrugged, "Everyone is paying the way they've always paid." I paid by card, as usual, and left.
This shop doubles as an unofficial bar of sorts, with neighbourhood residents gathering outside the front stoop at all times, but more so in the evenings, where they stand around and drink beer. It reminds of the 'The Corner' in high school, where some of us rebels would always hang out to smoke and socialize in the mornings and at lunch, just off school property.
A couple of regulars were already outside, chatting. When I got home, my wife jokingly said those are the people who are going to infect the entire building. That evening I went out for a bit of extra grocery shopping. Nothing too unusual at the local Kaufland, although the meat fridges were mostly empty. Toilet paper, however, was abundant.

At night we thought we'd take a walk to the pharmacy for some 'just in case' supplies. The streets (and sidewalks) were luxuriously empty although when we got to the pharmacy a line-up had formed. Surprisingly, people were keeping their distance. Not something I expected to ever see in Romania, the place where lineups are generally an extreme sport.

Sunday (15th) was bright and sunny so we went out in the afternoon for a little off-road driving around the hills of Cluj. It was good to be outside of the home and in nature. The weather was crisp and it was quiet up above the city. The upturned soil from freshly plowed fields gave the air an aroma of spring. A rugged Mitsubishi passed us at some point while I was taking pictures of a herd of sheep and their shepherd - who probably had no idea about anything Corona-related other than the beer. In the far distance we could see the blueish and grey hues of the western Carpathians. The city itself looked small and peaceful, nestled between the hills, and we drove back home on empty streets.

Monday - March 16th

I wonder if everyone else is waking up with this strange sense of unease. Technically there is nothing wrong, but according to every media outlet - and basically anyone you talk to, including yourself - danger is lurking and it's all about to come apart at the seams. Something like that. Even the work meetings, which are always remote in my case, had some of this heavy vibe.

Earlier in the morning I had called the police about a criminal record check I need for my driver's license. I asked if they were still open, "Well sir, we're in the middle of a pandemic, but we're open, you can come by if you want."
"Do I need to bring any specific documents other than ID?"
"You can email us the form, you'll find the details on the website, and then you come pick it up when it's ready."
"I'd rather avoid coming by if I could."
"We'd rather everyone avoided it, but here we are."
"So you can't send it by email?"
"We'd love to but we don't have the means to do it."
So that much is clear, but what the lady said was interesting "we'd love to."  A net benefit from all this will be a renewed sense of urgency to move as many government services as possible online. It is especially ridiculous at a time like this to imagine people lining up outside government offices for essential documents instead of using 21st century means of communication to facilitate basic bureaucratic transactions.

In other news, a deputy (parliamentarian) tested positive for COVID except that he's mostly asymptomatic. I mean, good for him, but not for those he was in contact with. Also, since I'm talking about contact, I'd like to take the opportunity to give a brief overview on how we got here.

The metaphorical shit only hit the fan when people started coming back from abroad, especially from Italy. Once things started going haywire in Lombardy, Romanians living there decided they'd be better off back home - God knows why. Some flew in, others drove, suffice to say most cases originated on the Italy - Romania express. However, the most notorious of the early cases is that of a 60 year old pensioner who'd returned from vacation in Israel with his thirty-something mistress. He lied about traveling abroad unwilling to compromise his clandestine liaison  and instead became a super-spreader, infecting at least 13 others.
Another super-spreader, a woman who came from Italy, infected 11 others after breaking the self-isolation conditions in Hunedoara county. Cluj meanwhile is 'okay', in that there are two confirmed cases. Given the spread so far, it's safe to assume this number is higher.

This is ample enough for an intro, let's see what tomorrow brings...


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