You never know when your next beer is going to be your last.
On November 30, 2015, a fire erupted in a club called Colectiv in Bucharest. The cause of the fire was improperly installed pyrotechnic show during a concert by Romanian rock band Goodbye to Gravity. The fire spread within seconds as the soundproof foam used by the club wasn’t fire-resistant. Many people died because the club had only one exit and at the time it was accommodating around 400 people, much more than its official capacity. It is unclear, given these conditions, why safety inspectors had allowed the club to function at all, let alone without a fire safety permit. Over the subsequent months and years, 64 people died as a direct result of the injuries or complications associated with the injuries. The 65th person, a survivor, took his own life. The owners of the club were charged with negligent homicide, however the trial is still ongoing. In an ideal world, in an ideal country, several things would have changed in the aftermath of such a tragedy. This is the story of all the ways in which Romania is not an ideal country and one reason why it is.
I often say that Romanians are forced, every day of their lives, to learn how the law works. That is the only way to protect your rights. Young and old alike, educated or not, peasants and corporatists, mothers and fathers, people from all walks of life will, at one point or another, have to deal with Romanian authorities and more often than not, they are faced with injustice and misdemeanor. Since the fall of communism in 1989, everyday life has been a constant struggle. The old and disabled live on meagre pensions and allowances while watching politicians enjoy a lush life in huge properties, sometimes in exotic places abroad. Going to the overcrowded, overworked hospitals is a nightmare in the wider context of an overall shortage of critical supplies and antiquated equipment and procedures, when they are not missing altogether. Doctors and nurses alike often protest their unjustly low wages, as well as the inhuman hours they are forced to work, or just don’t simply leave the country for the incomparable conditions abroad.
Immediately following the fire, Romanian authorities reassured the population, declaring that our hospital conditions are as good as they are abroad. It was a lie. They later recanted, rejecting blame for the infections originating in our own hospitals riddled with bacteria, which ended up killing some of the burn victims. They also failed to take blame for the improper care which was offered to the burn victims, one of which recalls having her wounds cleaned without anaesthesia, amid screams of pain, gently but insufficiently soothed by her nurse’s soft singing. Hospitals abroad have declared that such care was supposed to be offered during an induced coma, to prevent the patient from feeling the pain.
The bacteria, as well as the inhuman treatment, is still there to this day, impacting whomever is unlucky enough to acquire it or poor enough to be unable to afford private hospitals or care abroad. The appalling truth is that the government has failed to take action to change what is so repelling about Romanian hospitals, and the biggest injustice is that the Colectiv tragedy is only spoken of each time another year passes. We commemorate the dead and injured in marches which are getting smaller and smaller. We built a statue for them, may they rest in peace.
When you live in a country where you’re not sure if you can go out for a beer without risking injury and death, there are several courses of action. One, taken by millions – flee west, where 3.4 million Romanians left in the past 10 years, according to Business Review. Two, isolate yourself. Pretend that politics does not touch you. Pretend that failing hospital conditions, crumblings roads and antiquated school curricula aren’t connected to a failing government. Assume that there is nothing you can do and send your kids to private schools and hospitals – if you can.
Three years down the line, there is one reason to rejoice. Small opposition parties have flourished and are fighting to bring back some sense of normality. Civic movements, such as Coruptia Ucide and the #rezist phenomenon, have grown, encouraging people to vote and become informed. Protests take place routinely. While the incumbent government is fighting to save its own skin from jail time, passing laws aimed at redefining corruption so as to flee accusations of it, people’s eyes are opening – slowly but surely. They’re in the streets despite water cannons and tear gas, despite police brutality and governmental intimidation. They’re joining grass-root political movements and parties because they realize they are no longer represented by those in power.
Much remains to be desired and much remains to be done. Far too many people choose options one or two and nobody can truly blame them. But the memory of the 65 people should never be swept under the rug, because their deaths could and should have largely been prevented. The past cannot be undone. But we can choose and we have a duty to shape the future into one where we know that going out for a beer will not end in tragedy.
by Ioana Pavel
all photos by Ioana Pavel, All Rights Reserved