Romania: Protesters want reprisals for fatal hospital fire

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Protesters waving flags march after a deadly fire at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. Hundreds marched during a protest organized by the AUR alliance demanding the resignation of several top officials, after a fire early Friday at a key hospital in Bucharest that also treats COVID-19 patients killed five people. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

BUCHAREST – Hundreds of people protested outside Romania's Health Ministry the day after a fatal fire at one of the country's main hospitals for COVID-19 patients, calling Saturday for the resignations of the president, the health minister and the emergencies chief.

At least five people died in the fire, which broke out early Friday on the ground floor of the Matei Bals hospital in Bucharest and forced the evacuation of more than 100 people. It was the third hospital fire in Romania in as many months.

The protest was organized by the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians, a right-wing political party established a little over a year ago by leaders who opposed same-sex marriages and have supported Orthodox clerics who defied pandemic restrictions to hold religious ceremonies.

“We are out of tears and out of patience after 31 years in which we paid taxes and got nothing in return. Not a single new hospital was built in Romania in 31 years," AUR co-president George Simion said, referring to the time since communism ended. “The money was stolen from the Romanian medical system."

Simion said the party and its supporters “want the resignation of those responsible,” naming Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu and Department of Emergency Situations head Raed Arafat. He said AUR would donate its state financing to go toward the construction of a new hospital.

Protesters at Saturday's demonstration chanted, “We don’t want to be led by thieves” and also called for President Klaus Iohannis to resign.

Voiculescu, the health minister, said Saturday that the cause of Friday's fire is not yet known and an investigation is ongoing,

“We are waiting for the results for a number of reasons. One is to find out who is responsible, but most importantly, we need to learn the lessons that we need to learn,” he said. “If we know the initial cause of this, we will know what measures need to be prioritized in order to prevent such things from happening again.”

The minister agreed that Romania needs to improve its medical infrastructure.

“We will build new hospitals,” he said. "There is no magical solution for turning an old building into a new one. We need new hospitals.”

Before the fire at the Matei Bals hospital, a November fire in a COVID-19 intensive care unit in north Romania killed 10 people and a fire psychiatric hospital in the same region killed one person in December.