Moldova Weekly: flatten the system, saving private business, the fall of elections
Flatten the system
Moldova has not been very successful at flattening the Covid-19 curve and the number of infected people reached 864 on Sunday. What’s worse - 240 of them are medical workers. Nicoale Furtună, head of the Public Health Agency, explained that most of the infections among hospital staff originated outside of their workplace. However, should the trend continue, the question is who will take care of patients if the doctors and nurses themselves become patients? According to forecasts, the number of coronavirus infections in Moldova may reach 31,000 cases by the end of May, which will put the national healthcare system under tremendous strain.
There seems to be great dissatisfaction and worry among medical workers, but the government is trying to keep it under wraps and silence dissent. There have been numerous reports of doctors writing anonymously to journalists and asking them to tell the public about the disastrous situation in hospitals. Most recently, a patient from Soroca streamed a live video on Facebook, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Chicu, who said the woman “looked fine enough” and that this wasn’t the time for “glamorous lives”.
It may not be much consolation in this situation, but the government acknowledged doctors’ efforts and doubled their wages for April. Moreover, every medical worker will receive a one-time payment of about 800 euros. Authorities also promised to test for the virus all hospital staff. However, the quality of these tests is under question. President Dodon announced Moldova will get 100,000 “fast and efficient” test kits from China, even though other European countries are giving up on Chinese express tests because of their low accuracy. Moldova has already received 10,000 kits from Russia, which also don’t have a very good reputation.
This Monday, public employees and civil servants were supposed to return to their jobs, despite the worsening epidemiologic situation. The government finally relented on Monday morning and prolonged their forced leave.
Saving private business
On Monday, President Dodon announced a series of measures meant to help the economy and on Wednesday the government “assumed responsibility” for a package containing Dodon’s and several extra measures “PRO-BUSINESS and PRO-CITIZENS”. Assuming responsibility means the government can adopt or change a law without the Parliament. In turn, the legislative body has three days to dismiss the Cabinet, otherwise the government’s laws or amendments go into effect. However, when the prime minister came to the Parliament to assume responsibility, the ruling coalition MPs from PSRM and PDM were not present and the Legislative did not have a quorum. As such, the opposition didn’t even get a chance to ask questions and the government’s package passed.
Despite its all-caps titles, this package of measures provides very weak support for business. Instead of providing incentives and help for employers to keep their staff at least on partial wages, the Moldovan government made it easier for businesses to fire their workers and more attractive for laid off people to rely on unemployment subsidies. Authorities committed to return between 60% and 100% of wage related taxes to employers, but unlike most European countries will not subsidize the wages themselves.
There’s some hope in relation to the EU’s promised €140 million aid for Eastern Partnership countries and €700 million that will be made available for economic recovery aid in the EP. As for the promised Russian loan of €200 million, authorities have finally budged and admitted they may use part of the money for healthcare needs instead of road infrastructure.
The government’s package of laws included some measures that don’t seem to have anything to do with the coronavirus pandemic. The most important of these is a small tax reform that will come into effect on January 1, 2021. It will increase the amount of taxes paid by employers and slightly reduce those paid by employees. Other curious “emergency” measures adopted by the government include a postponement of some tobacco restrictions that were to come into effect this April and some tax exemptions for duty free shops.
Home bittersweet home
One of the few good news for Moldovans abroad is that they will be eligible for unemployment benefits if they return home. The government also stepped in to finally help organize charter flights for Moldovans stuck abroad. In previous weeks, those who wanted to return had to self-organize and book flights by themselves. In one such case, 180 Moldovans had to spend the night in the Prague airport because Moldovan authorities didn’t greenlight the flight. There have been reports of scams and other issues. Even now, the whole process is a bit Byzantine and it’s easier to get a ticket via social network groups instead of the official authorities.
The government has also made it mandatory for the returning migrants to buy public health insurance. Initially, they were not to be allowed entrance in the country, but then authorities changed their mind and allowed migrants to buy the insurance within 3 days of their return. Despite the Moldovan economy being heavily reliant on remittances from abroad, President Dodon has mocked the Moldovan diaspora for returning home only in such dire times.
The fall of elections
Igor Dodon suggested this fall’s presidential elections might be delayed if a new wave of coronavirus infections hits Moldova, which is a possibility experts seriously consider. However, he stressed the ballot will be postponed only if the situation is bad enough to warrant a state of emergency.
Veteran politician Dumitru Diacov has another idea. He thinks Moldova should switch back to having a president elected by the Parliament, an idea Igor Dodon has previously opposed. Diacov is a member of the ruling PSRM-PDM coalition, but his party chief Pavel Filip was quick to point out that Diacov’s opinion was not the official position of the Democrats. Filip himself says the idea is not even worth discussing at this time.
Most politicians have accused each other of using the coronavirus crisis as a pre-electoral campaign. The opposition says the government is acting according to Dodon’s whims instead of the experts’ opinion, while the ruling parties say the opposition is merely profiteering from the crisis and spouting baseless criticism.
President Dodon has even suggested “a ban on political discussions” until the coronavirus pandemic is over. What exactly this ban would mean and how it would be imposed is not yet clear, but given Dodon’s admiration for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it sounds very much like censorship.
Like, share, block
This week, we translated an older piece precisely related to a widespread censorship practice in Moldovan politics: blocking critics on Facebook. Taking a cue from the US, where a New York court ruled that President Trump cannot block users from his Twitter feed, we argue that Moldovan officials use their social media profiles and pages to communicate important public information and blocking users is essentially restricting their access to information of public interest.
The websites of Moldovan institutions are notoriously not updated and both President Dodon and Prime Minister Chicu communicate their most important decisions on Facebook. However, Igor Dodon and his social media team are known to have blocked journalists, activists and comedians alike because of unwanted criticism.
Read our full piece where we explain why this is dangerous for democracy here: Public institutions and officials should be barred from blocking citizens on Facebook