'I was in hell': Fourth virus wave rips through Romania

Romania is suffering from a spike in deaths from the virus as a 'catastrophic' fourth wave takes hold. ©AFP

Bucharest (AFP) - "I was in hell," 43-year-old Romanian taxi driver Bogdan Gavanescu says, recounting his two-month battle against the coronavirus from his hospital bed in Bucharest.

One of the poorest countries in the EU and with one of its weakest vaccination campaigns against the virus, Romania is suffering from a spike in deaths as a "catastrophic" fourth wave takes hold.

"I had to be ventilated and I was eventually brought back to life," says Gavanescu, who admits he "didn't believe" the virus existed before catching it.

Doctors can be seen rushing between the beds laid out in the corridors of the Matei Bals hospital, which they say is at "110 percent" occupancy.

"If the current flow (of patients) continues, in one or two days the health system will collapse because we already don't have enough place to accommodate the sick," says hospital director Catalin Apostolescu.

"It's hell in intensive care units across the country and the situation is just getting worse," says Dorel Sandesc, a senior doctor at a large hospital in the western city of Timisoara and president of the Romanian Society of Anaesthetists.

'Italy scenario'

At several hospitals in Bucharest and the north-eastern city of Iasi, queues of ambulances have been waiting outside hospitals for beds to become available, according to media reports and posts on social networks.

Often ICU beds only become free because their previous occupants have died.

Thursday saw 14,457 new cases of the virus recorded within 24 hours in the country of just over 19 million inhabitants.

Figures released Friday showed the highest death toll of the entire pandemic reported in one day, with 385 people succumbing to the virus.

"I fear we are already in the Italy scenario," said the head of the national vaccination campaign Valeriu Gheorghita, referring to the overwhelming of the healthcare system in northern Italy in March 2020 during the first wave of the virus.

For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, Romania is considering transferring some 200-300 patients outside the country for treatment amid what senior officials describe as a health "catastrophe". 

"In September the ambulances' reaction time for major emergencies was sometimes five or even eight hours in some regions.For testing requests the delays are up to five days.It's inadmissible," outgoing Prime Minister Florin Citu said Friday.

His government was brought down in a no-confidence vote in parliament earlier this week, after MPs accused him of financial mismanagement and an inept response to the pandemic. 

'I was wrong'

The pandemic has exacerbated woes facing the country's underfunded and understaffed healthcare system.

Last week, a hospital fire killed seven patients, the third such incident in Romania in less than a year.

With even higher infection rates expected later this month, hospitals have been asked to suspend any "non urgent" operations and hospital stays.

Radu Ganescu, head of the Copac association of patients with chronic conditions, says this will amount to a "death sentence" for many. 

"We can't simply cast aside millions of patients with chronic illnesses," he said.

Romania previously suspended elective surgeries in March 2020, with thousands of deaths among non-virus patients estimated as a result.

The country's sluggish vaccination campaign has seen about a third of the eligible population fully immunised.

"A failure we are all paying the price for," said Sandesc, the doctor.

Health experts say the government relaxed restrictions too quickly over the summer, believing the pandemic had been essentially defeated.

Now that the situation is again deteriorating, the government has brought in a vaccine passport for restaurants and public events, only for this to spark demonstrations attended by thousands last week.

Sociologists put Romanians' low take-up of the vaccines down to mistrust of the authorities, coupled with an explosion of conspiracy theories circulating on social media.

Lucia Draghici, a patient at Matei Bals in her 50s left struggling to breathe by the virus, admits she is still "very scared" of getting the vaccine despite the effect the illness has had on her.

Georgica Vieru, a 53-year-old Orthodox priest, says he was "one of those who believed that the vaccine wasn't good".

After 29 days in hospital recovering from the virus, he's had time to think again.

"After everything I've been through, I know I was wrong," he said.

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