Lessons of the Pandemic for the Moldovan Civil Society

[INTERVIEW Bulletin No 6] Lina Grau | Civil society almost completely replaced the state on the social and supply side, but did not put pressure on the authorities to rethink their approaches.

What were the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic for civil society and how much of what the authorities fail to manage can be put on the shoulders of volunteers and active people of our society? To what extent can the effort and mobilization of society be aided by the appropriate messages from the authorities or, conversely, compromised by their vagueness or incompetence? Are we on our own in this crisis or not? And what can volunteers and civil society continue to do to reduce the dramatic effects of this pandemic on Moldovan society (RM)?

We discussed the subject with volunteers and activists who, since the beginning of the pandemic, have had impact-driven initiatives to support the medical system in the fight against Covid-19.

Ana Racu is a member of the UN Committee against Torture. Together with businessman Anatol Untura and Victoria Dunford, president of the non-governmental organisation Moldova AID, Ana Racu initiated the first fundraising campaign for those involved in fighting Covid-19, when, at the beginning of the pandemic, doctors in hospitals did not have the necessary means of protection, medicines and equipment. Among the beneficiaries of the ‘Together for you!’ initiative there were social workers, police and prison staff.

Within a few months, the three volunteers collected over MDL 4.5 million in cash donations, buying with that money 29 items of medical equipment, including two mechanical ventilators, tens of thousands of masks, protective suits, face shields, 16 tons of disinfectants and soap, plus food and other goods.

Carrying out this campaign meant personal effort and time dedicated to a cause. ‘The pandemic makes us all equal – whether you are a minister, a sweeper, a president or a student, we are all in the same boat. Respectively, the response to the pandemic had to be one of general mobilization’, Ana Racu said.

How come that a campaign launched by three civic activists had more credibility on the part of those who donated than the fundraising announced by the authorities?

The answer seems to be obvious. ‘All our procurements were transparent and we published all the financial statements’, says Ana Racu. Besides, we paid a lot of attention to the quality of the products we purchased, so we personally checked them at the manufacturer when we made purchases on the domestic market, to make sure that the products the hospitals receive are in accordance with the standards’.

Another feature of the campaign was that most of the protective equipment was purchased from the local producers. The campaign started during the general lockdown when nothing could be imported. Some of the protective masks were made in Rusca’s penitentiary, very good quality protective coveralls were also sewn in the Republic of Moldova; we worked with local producers of disinfectants and soap.

‘There were more people like us. And I am glad that back then there was this wave of mobilization and solidarity with the medical staff. We heard from many doctors that the masks and the protective coveralls they received mattered to them, but that the solidarity of the society mattered even more. What happened later, under the influence of fake news and conspiracy theories, is another drama that we are all going through at the moment’, Ana Racu pointed out.

What was the influence of the contradictory messages sent by the authorities that were supposed to manage this crisis? 

Crises always show where the strengths and weaknesses of a state lie, Ana Racu emphasised. ‘There were initiatives and things done well and with good intentions, but there were also many contradictory things and insufficient efforts, in situations when it was not about money, but about informing or setting positive examples that should have come from political leaders. The fact that the country’s leaders did not themselves comply with the conditions they imposed generated a series of negative examples in society that were followed very quickly.’

Against the background of distrust towards the authorities of different levels, the chances are that the civil society will fill certain failures or gaps of the authorities. ‘In our situation, when things are literally “between life and death”, it is just like in the saying that God helps those who help themselves.’ But how much strength does the Moldovan society have left to help itself, in the conditions of an almost general depression and apathy that was also felt among the civil society?

‘This feeling of learned helplessness prevails in the Moldovan society – no one wants to do anything anymore because they feel that the effort is in vain. The good part is that there will always be people who will try to inspire – a responsible mayor, a community leader or a priest who conveys the right messages. Examples of successful projects are needed to prove that ‘it is possible’ and to encourage other initiatives. Besides, people need to understand that they have a personal responsibility for the state of affairs around them’, says Ana Racu.  The activist notes that one of the criticisms she received in connection with this campaign was excessive media coverage and the fact that ‘charity should be done without attracting too much attention’. ‘I would agree with this opinion if it were exclusively my money. But we received donations from a lot of people who placed their confidence in us and just wanted to make sure their money were spent accordingly. So we paid a lot of attention to the transparency of every penny. In addition, charities of this kind encourage other initiatives, mobilize other people who want to help, prove that ‘it is possible’, points out Ana Racu.

What else can the civil society do at present?

There are many things that can be done in a professional and smart way. Starting with awareness-raising campaigns and shows, generating discussions to combat conspiracy theories or fake news and trying to open a dialogue with the most fanatical and lost in their theories of scepticism against Covid and finishing with charitable actions for lonely old people, people with advanced chronic diseases, other categories that even before the pandemic were not cared for by the state; provision of social services…

‘Therefore, I believe that we still have reserves of enthusiasm and, of course, energy. The magic of a warm lunch, of a good word, of emotional support is the solution, even for overcoming this seemingly all-encompassing depression in the Moldovan society’, concluded Ana Racu, one of the initiators of the ‘Together for you!’ initiative. 

The Ave-Copiii Association, located within few minutes walk from the Chisinau Emergency Hospital, was forced to close its day patient facility for children and adolescents immediately after the pandemic outbreak. A few weeks later, doctors from the emergency hospital moved into the deserted house with the inner courtyard, which has since become Covid hospital. In this way, the non-governmental organisation decided to support the medical system and its employees who could no longer live at home because of the risk of infecting their family members. Thus, the association’s premises provide to date up to 15 accommodation places for the frontline doctors.

Mariana Ianachevici, director of the Ave-Copiii association, says that helping doctors is one of the great moral satisfactions of the team she leads, in addition to supporting over 130 children and young people she monitors and the 14 teenagers in the care of the association who graduated from vocational schools this year. 

‘For us, it was a moment of satisfaction that we were able to lend a helping hand to the frontline doctors in this crisis. In March, we had to rethink our projects for working with children and adolescents, moving them online. At one point we started wondering about how useful and efficient what we do really is – if all we are doing is just ‘moving the papers around’. So the offer we made to the doctors was a project from the heart.’

‘I learned to understand the evolution of the pandemic judging by their faces. There is no need for me to ask them how things are and how many infected people they have. Or if they are over-exhausted, too tired. For example, if the doctor is standing outside with an absent look drinking his coffee, then it is clear that things are not going very well’, Mariana Ianachevici said.

Ave-Copiii’s director says that the initiatives of the civil society, welcome and desirable, should have been an effort made at the beginning of the pandemic. They should have given the authorities time to organise themselves and think about a more effective crisis management. This, however, never happened. We took on a lot, we quickly solved a multitude of problems that the state takes much longer to solve. However, we were far too silent and did not demand of the authorities maximum mobilization. We should have made the time to talk much more about what we were doing and to demand of the Government a concrete plan of response to the pandemic and concrete actions’, Mariana Ianachevici pointed out.

‘We did not make time to have a dialogue with the authorities and to tell them frankly: “We can now, as a matter of urgency, take upon ourselves many things that you won’t manage to do. But in the meantime you, the authorities, need to reconfigure your budget, procedures, processes. And for that you only have a month or two.”

We, however, have stepped up and completely replaced the state on the side related to social aspects, supplies… The authorities can count on the resources of civil society and its flexibility, but only for a short time and during this time must have the ability to reconfigure their procedures. For example, we have case management for the social side related to children, which is a working algorithm for the social worker.

As part of it, social workers should have been provided guidelines for situations like, for example, when children are left alone at home because their parents were hospitalized with Covid-19. And we found that the social worker assigned to them only called them, because they were in quarantine themselves. So there were no clear procedures for such unusual but real situations that affect the lives of concrete people.

Another example: in Chisinau, the Street Aid Service did not work during the two months of the spring emergency. In my opinion, this is a service that should have worked like 112, given that the street children continued to live on the streets’, Mariana Ianachevici said.   

‘So, we should have had a say in relation to authorities and, probably, to say it a little louder, in a clear-cut manner. And the authorities, who generally do not pay much attention to what society has to say, have become accustomed to the fact that we, the civil society, are obedient and silent and do our job’, the director of Ave-Copiii said.

Regarding the confusing message of the authorities, especially when it comes to wearing masks and complying with the quarantine rules, Mariana Ianachevici said that very strict rules were imposed from the beginning in her organization – the obligation to wear masks and gloves, use disinfectants, working remotely and trying to avoid public transport. ‘We are lucky to have these great partners in Italy, who told us frankly from the beginning: “This is going to last. Until the vaccine comes out – we're not getting out of it. It is important that you take care of yourselves!” But for people who do not have much access to information and who are eager to put someone on a pedestal, the messages of the authorities were particularly harmful’, Mariana Ianachevici said.

As for the things the civil society can do in the current context, the activist said that Ave-Copiii intends to continue the projects started before Covid, only that its activities will have to be adapted to the new reality. ‘Let us not end up thinking that we no longer need to help poor children go back to school. Let us not end up thinking that there is no need for much information, awareness-raising about violence. So, we put on gloves, we wear masks, we keep our distance, we always bring the disinfectant with us, we move online.’

Mariana Ianachevici also has suggestions for the authorities. ‘They must adapt to new realities as soon as possible and minimize physical contact and avoid printed paperwork if electronic options are available. We should have scolded them a long time ago. 

The Tax Inspectorate is long overdue to issue a number of new work instructions and methods, not simply “keep your distance from the counter”, because that is not the (only) important thing. It is important, for instance, for accountants that in the conditions of the pandemic the delivery and acceptance certificate could be developed electronically and not mandatorily in paper format.’

I also asked Mariana Ianachevici why many people in Moldova have the feeling that ‘we are left on our own’.

‘Because we are really left on our own. Patients are often not hospitalized or are admitted too late when their lungs are already affected. Because the messages of the authorities are confusing, contradictory and not-well-thought-out. Because the authorities prefer to use a dry, formal language, which the common man does not understand. That's why we feel left on our own… Because the authorities do not do things right, because they talk badly to people, because they give confusing messages. And then, how do they want people to follow the rules, when they themselves do not follow them, if they themselves promote the double standard? Half-measures yield half the result or even less. So we are where we are now’, concludes Mariana Ianachevici, director of the Ave-Copiii association.

Images sources: Facebook pages of the campaign Together for you! and of the Association for Child and Family Empowerment ‘AVE Copiii’

Lina Grâu is a journalist, show producer on Radio Free Europe / Radio Freedom (RFE / RL). Author of studies and analyzes, periodicals and radio programs covering topics of European integration, regional cooperation, internal and external affairs of the Republic of Moldova and the issue of Transnistrian settlement. She contributes with studies and materials to the publications of independent think tanks and collaborates with media institutions from the Republic of Moldova and abroad.

This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.

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