BUCHAREST - Earlier this week, Oana Gheorghiu and Carmen Uscatu were at a county hospital in northeastern Romania making plans to quickly replace its intensive care unit after a fire destroyed it two weeks ago, killing 12 COVID-19 patients. The founders of Give Life, an NGO that builds medical infrastructure in Romania, have already raised funds from the public and companies for the country's first pediatric oncology hospital and a modular coronavirus hospital with 38 beds in the capital Bucharest. They hope that after a parliamentary election on Dec. 6, the government will make the healthcare system a priority after what they see as decades of neglect by the state. "The medical system is at rock bottom and...I hope public pressure will become stronger on the future government and that change happens," said Gheorghiu, who met Uscatu almost 20 years ago. Opinions polls show Romania's current minority Liberal government is expected to win the election and form a coalition cabinet with another centrist grouping. The Liberals have said they will tap 7.5 billion euros available in EU funds for healthcare, although all parties in the election have repeatedly promised to reform the sector. The Nov. 14 fire in Piatra Neamt was the latest in a string of hospital accidents that included a maternity ward fire which killed six newborns in 2010. Critics say widespread corruption means hospital managers often lack experience, and previous court cases show that some have taken bribes in exchange for contracts. General physicians are in short supply, and one in four Romanians lack sufficient access to basic services, leading to the EU's highest mortality rate from treatable diseases. The state has built one hospital in the last three decades, spends the least on healthcare in the European Union and tens of thousands of doctors and nurses have emigrated. "Civic society can only substitute the state up to a point," said Camelia Mates from the Association for Community Relations (ARC), which connects donors to causes and offers a central platform for text message giving. "If the state does not build hospitals, how many hospitals could we build with 2-4 euro donations?" ARC data showed Romanians gave 51.9 million lei ($12.72 million) via text messages and direct debit last year. "When I vote, I do so hoping things can change for the better," said Monica Simion, a store owner who has donated to Give Life and volunteers at a COVID-related call centre for the state public health agency. "This includes ensuring that a fire like the one at the county hospital in Piatra Neamt never happens again." ($1 = 4.0790 lei) REUTERS
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