The New Romania

Immediately after the overthrow of the Ceauçescu regime in December 1989, European medical relief agencies discovered several hundred babies infected with AIDS in decrepit and filthy state orphanages throughout Romania. Images of the wasted bodies of infants, two and three to a crib, appeared on European and American television, arousing public outrage. Many people sent contributions, and humanitarian organizations went to Romania to try to help the AIDS orphans and to understand how such a nightmarish situation could have occurred.

In the fall of 1990, we wrote in these pages how the Ceauçescu government had ruthlessly set out to raise the country’s birth rate, and how, in doing so, it had thoroughly corrupted Romanian physicians. The many elements necessary to infect abandoned babies with AIDS came together, as in a deadly game of dominoes. In prohibiting contraception and abortion at a time when the Romanian standard of living was falling, Ceauçescu’s policy put many families under enormous financial and emotional strain; at the same time, by forcing doctors to keep all newborn babies alive, the government encouraged them to perform such bizarre practices as giving minuscule blood transfusions to under-weight babies. At the same time, the government coerced people into donating blood, refused to screen the blood supply, and did nothing to prevent the reuse of needles. All these measures led to the spread of AIDS to children in hospitals and institutions.

At the request of Jeri Laber, head of Helsinki Watch, we recently returned to Romania to investigate the current condition of the institutionalized children as well as the current state of the medical profession. Three years after the fall of Ceauçescu, we tried to find out whether the ambitious international relief efforts have had any lasting effect.

International organizations have changed conditions in Romania in a most unexpected way. Hospitals and homes for AIDS orphans and handicapped children now have both larger staffs and larger supplies of drugs and equipment than the regular day-care centers and health clinics. The attention given the children with AIDS has helped to remedy shameful conditions—but it has also created new problems.

The generous contributions that began in January 1989 have continued and the many relief groups working in Romania seem as energetic and enthusiastic as ever. The official Romanian directory of foreign humanitarian organizations working in the country is fifteen pages long and lists 170 groups. Every orphanage has a foreign sponsor, and several Romanian officials wondered whether they should establish a few more institutions so that every interested organization could adopt one. Among the organizations involved are the London-based Romanian Orphanage Trust, the Swedish Save the Children, and the French, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland chapters of Médecins sans Frontières. The World Health Organization and UNICEF are still active, along with some twenty American organizations including Project Hope, Project Concern, and Feed the Children. In addition, Princess Margaret, the daughter of Michael, the last king of Romania, has established a foundation devoted exclusively to AIDS babies.

As a result …

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