BUCHAREST – Queen Elizabeth II, David Bowie and ... Claudia Anghel?
Anghel, an experienced Romanian midwife, has joined the star-studded ranks of people whose portraits have been taken by famed photographer Rankin.
It was done as part of a billboard campaign celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the U.K.’s National Health Service, which gives residents free health care. Anghel has been working as a midwife in Britain since 2012.
Her success story as one of 600,000 Romanians in Britain is at the same time a telling sign of how the deficiencies of her home country’s health care system and the bleak prospects for a better future for herself and her family have left huge gaps in Romanian society and its health care system.
Romania, an impoverished former communist country ruled for decades with an iron fist by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, joined the European Union in 2007. The move opened up massive new work prospects for the country's 19 million people.
By 2013, more than 14,000 Romanian doctors were working abroad, about 26% of the country’s total number of physicians. By 2016, official statistics showed that 44,000 medical staffers had left for Western Europe, with current estimates putting that figure as high as 60,000.
The issues plaguing Romanian health care reflect the country’s overall problems — low wages, corruption, bad management and favoritism tied to political or personal connections that paves the way for advancement over other attributes like skill, experience or merit.
Anghel said that while higher Western salaries certainly influenced her decision to emigrate to Britain, it wasn’t the most important factor.
“Salaries make a difference, but for me, the work environment makes the bigger difference,” Anghel said in a video interview from her English home. “It’s the respect for the medical staff and the respect for the patient — this mutual respect.”
“You don’t emigrate because you don’t have money, you emigrate to avoid corruption,” said Anghel, who works at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, in central England. “There are small elements of corruption everywhere, but in Romania it is at a different level.”
Transparency International lists Romania 70th among 180 countries ranked according to their perceived levels of corruption. Previous governments especially were strongly criticized by the European Union for efforts to weaken the independence of the courts to protect politicians facing corruption charges.
Over the past few years, Romanians all over the country have held massive rallies against government corruption. The recent designation of Romanian prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi as the European Union's first Public Prosecutor was welcomed by many compatriots — but not by the dozens of politicians she indicted at home during her five years as head of Romania's Anticorruption Directorate.
Analyst Sorin Ionita said the thousands of doctors and nurses who have fled Romania’s public health sector left mainly because they felt powerless in a “feudal system” in which political cronies decide who gets promoted and how medical resources are spent.
“Although salaries were increased quite significantly in the state medical system ... this did not slow the pace of departures too much,” said Ionita, head of the Bucharest-based Expert Forum think tank.
Ionita said young doctors especially could be frustrated at falling behind less-talented colleagues who had better political connections.
“The one who is not a good professional joins a political party to gather support and immediately becomes the health minister or a state secretary," Ionita said.
Better opportunities and a more fair workplace were key factors for Anghel.
“I would not return to work to Romania because I can be whatever I want here,” she said, jokingly envisioning herself as an adviser on midwifery issues to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “In Romania, you don’t have wings like you have here, to become whatever you want.”
“Someone needs to change the system to make people stay there,” Anghel added. “The rules are not the same for everyone in Romania.”
Her frustrations with Romanian health care were reconfirmed recently when her father became ill and required medical attention in her hometown of Calarasi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of Bucharest, the capital.
“I was looked down upon and treated arrogantly by someone (on the medical staff) whose assistance I needed,” she said.
Adding to her pain, her father later passed away.
Surrounded in her English home by thank-you cards, official awards and testimonies about her professional excellence, Anghel mentioned another reason for emigrating.
“I wanted to offer more opportunities to my son,” Anghel said.
Would she consider going back to her homeland, which she said she loves and promotes as much as she can?
“I wish something would change with the Romanian system, but I am so sure it’s not going to change," she said. "No thanks, I will not be a midwife in Romania.”
Andreea Alexandru contributed to this report.