Oradea, a city at the forefront of good practices and resilience in handling the COVID-19 crisis

The measures taken by the public administration and the good coordination with the private sector during the COVID-19 pandemic are bringing the city of Oradea, in North-West of Romania, at the forefront of good practices and resilience in crisis situations.

Photo: Oradea City Hall

The measures taken by the public authorities to manage the crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus confirm the efficiency of the Oradea public administration, as demonstrated over the years by the high absorption rate of European funds and the overall development of the city. 

The ability to adapt and intervene quickly is all the more necessary in border counties, which are constantly exposed to transit. Among the most important measures to combat the pandemic caused by coronavirus were the provision of medical supplies for medical staff, the provision of remote thermometers and protective masks for companies, markets, and public institutions in Oradea. The purchase of three PCR testing devices raised the total capacity up to 660 tests / day. Following the collaboration with multinational private companies, sanitary equipment was purchased directly from China at advantageous prices and in a timely manner. They arrived in Oradea in mid-April and cover the needs of hospitals in Bihor for at least two months.

According to the latest report of the Romanian Strategic Communication Group, just a few hundred cases of coronavirus were registered in Bihor county.

All people were tested before being released from quarantine

Given the proximity to the border with Hungary (13 km), among the first measures taken was the escort of convoys of cars entering the country to the administrative limit of the county and the organization of strictly guarded quarantine centers outside the city. As a precaution, Bihor was the only county in the country to test all persons before leaving the quarantine, at the initiative of Prefect Dumitru Țiplea. 

Photo: Oradea City Hall

“Since the beginning of the crisis in Bihor, a total of 11 quarantine centers have been established, by decisions of the County Committee for Emergency Situations. Bihor was the only county in the country where quarantined people were tested, leaving quarantine after having negative results.”, according to the Prefecture of the county.

As a result of the effective measures taken at administrative level, the number of quarantined persons has decreased considerably: out of the total of 11 centers, only 2 are active at the moment. Currently, there are 47 people in quarantine in these centers, from 1,201 in April 24.

Oradea’s hospitals, administered by the City Hall

A peculiarity at the city level is that the hospitals in Oradea are subordinated to the City Hall, which was a major advantage during this period. The two hospitals (Municipal and County Hospital) offer a total of approximately 900 beds and 75 places for intensive care. In order to limit the spread of the virus, the Municipal Hospital of Oradea was transformed into a hospital dedicated to COVID-19 cases, with a separate emergency unit.

Even if the hospitals are managed by the City Hall, it does not pay the operating expenses, such as utilities, but allocates money only for investments, facilities and rehabilitation. Thus, the accountability of the hospital administration is encouraged and emphasis is placed on their development.

Testing of all patients before hospitalization

In order to reduce the time needed to process the samples (initially sent to Cluj-Napoca) and increase the testing capacity, the municipality purchased a first Real Time PCR rapid test device in March 23rd from donations made by companies in the city. Two additional devices were purchased, with one of them being donated by the RCS-RDS telecommunication company. Thus, the testing capacity of the city increased to 500-660 / day.

Photo: Oradea City Hall

To protect doctors and patients, all patients coming in the emergency room as well as patients from the Infectious Diseases Department of the County Hospital (dedicated to cases of patients not infected with coronavirus) were tested as a preventive measure. The risk groups are also tested periodically, according to the manager of Oradea County Hospital and the coordinator of the hospitals in the county, Dr. Gheorghe Carp.

Group testing of medical staff and quarantined persons

To protect all medical staff, including those not working with COVID-19 cases, the hospital management implemented a “pool testing” method. This involves taking nasopharyngeal secretions from 32-64 people, isolating those in the group with potential infections and testing individuals if the result is positive. According to the manager of the Oradea County Hospital, the method is successfully applied in Israel and Germany.

This method was also applied for the groups in quarantine centers. Further consideration is given to extending testing so that vulnerable people such as elderly in nursing homes and those who work for them, can be tested.

“Regarding the mortality in Bihor County, it is less than 2% of the total number of those infected and hospitalized. This is also due to the professionalism of those who deal with these cases.”, states Dr. Gheorghe Carp in a statement from April 23.

Collaboration with multinational companies in the city for the import of materials from China

The problem of protective equipment has been solved at county level for at least 2 months, since mid-April. In the context of the crisis caused by the virus, the lack of materials (masks, coveralls, footwear protection, visors etc.) and extended delivery times were the main problems that the local administration of Oradea faced. Immediately after the decree of the state of emergency in Romania, the hospitals in Oradea carried out an analysis of their stocks of sanitary protection materials, potential suppliers, purchase prices and delivery terms. 

The identified solution was to import protective equipment directly from China, with the support of multinational companies from Oradea that had production units or partners in China. They also helped to conduct a market study and to identify potential suppliers. 

Mihai Jurca, responsible for the purchase of these sanitary materials and director of APTOR, stated: “Initially we conducted a market study in which we followed three very important factors: the cost of materials, their delivery time and payment term. This process is based on the expertise, contacts and know-how of some multinational companies from Oradea.”

Photo: Oradea City Hall

The products, worth over $3 million, have a European certificate of conformity and were inspected by a specialized company before ordering. The representatives of the municipality mentioned that during this period the transport costs would have been much higher, but they also benefited from the support of the carriers.

„All the companies mobilized in an admirable manner and supported the struggle of local public authorities with substantial sums to equip the Municipal Hospital with equipment, apparatus and consumables in the fight against COVID-19, providing an example of sustainable development and social responsibility. With their help, Oradea managed to react to combat not only the medical effects of the pandemic, but also the economic ones.”, shared Alina Silaghi, Director of the Oradea Local Development Agency (ADLO).

Due to the lock-down, infrastructure work could be done more easily in the city and many were finalized ahead of schedule. In the context of declining revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oradea City Hall reduced its expenses by 9 million euros, both in terms of investments and operating expenses. However, “all the European projects that Oradea City Hall has won will be carried out with maximum speed, in such a way as to maintain the absorption of European money at the highest possible level.”, explained the mayor Ilie Bolojan.

Work continues at the underground passage on Magheru Street, one of the major projects in Oradea. Photo: Oradea instantanee

Measures to support the local economy

The City Hall gave a powerful message in terms of finding solutions to avoid a complete shutdown of economic activity. In order to support Oradea’s economy, the administration distributed thermometers with remote reading to companies, public institutions and all food markets. Also, the City Hall of Oradea plans to install these remote thermometers in supermarkets and in public transport vehicles, so that gradually, economic activity can be resumed, with minimal risks.

The devices were  distributed  to companies with over 50 employees (around 300), while companies with more than 25 employees can request a free device / company from ADLO. Those with fever can be tested, with a medical team being prepared to take samples at the request of companies.

In order to avoid outbreaks of infection, companies with more than 25 employees can request surgical type protection masks, at purchase price. Moreover, masks were made available to the citizens at a price of no more than € 0,3 / piece, through an suplier of masks from Bihor county.

The private sector in Oradea enjoys a good relationship with the local administration, due to several reasons. The main one being the lack of major corruption scandals in the public administration: „Since 2008, we have not had a major corruption scandal. The other aspect was the predictability that we saw from the Mayor’s office, they say what they mean and they mean what they say. Business people look at Oradea and feel that the mayor likes them and is available to help. He also holds a gathering of the top tax contributors once a year where he personally thanks them for their tax contributions. It really makes a lot of difference.”, thinks Sebastian Vaduva, local entrepreneur and director of a private management school in Oradea.  In his view, the mere fact that the situation was well managed by the public administration brought a huge reassurance for the business community.

Scenarios for innovation in the business sector

Companies will be faced with the option of losing people, sending them in unemployment, or possibly setting up a new department for innovation and creating their own products. „In the short run, the companies in Oradea , especially in the automotive industry, are impacted negatively. But there will also be a minority of 10-20%, that will wake up and try to find solutions. It is going to be those small minorities that are going to make a difference.”, believes Sebastian Văduva.

One of the possible scenarios involves the migration from the outsourcing model into a product-based model, requiring innovation: „I foresee some of the traditional outsourcers that are going to attempt to be innovative. They also have money stashed up, and can afford to allocate a small team of people to develop a new software (especially in telemedicine)”.

In his view, the sectors that can lead the way out of the current crisis are IT, high-end manufacturing and agriculture, with diaspora returning to the city possibly setting up  factories for processing and branding of agricultural products for Romanian consumption, neighboring county consumption, and beyond.

Robotics and AI – innovation and utility in times of crisis

According to George Haber, investor in Braintronix, a company specialized in the production of AI robots, this crisis is an opportunity to innovate, to create solutions that will change human society, moving forward. “Braintronix is in this category. These robots are becoming even more important in this pandemic, with automation needed in environments and situations where people could get sick, like sanitizing hospitals or shops”, explains Haber. Braintronix is based on a modular concept, on the “lego” principle, with a common base, so it can be easily transformed. A factory can use the same robot for different tasks during the day and sanitation in the evening. 

In making the decision to open Braintronix in the Eurobusiness Oradea Industrial Park earlier this year, the team evaluated the offer and the lifestyle enabled by the city and its connection to transport infrastructure: “The city is beautiful, you have everything you need to do business and it is fantastically well located for a production line. You’ve got great road infrastructure, easy connection to Europe and to the rest of the country.”, shared George Haber.

The transparent and efficient communication with the public administration were, however, major factors in choosing this location: „What impressed me the most in Oradea was how direct, simple and transparent the communication is with the mayor and the public administration. It is a very important thing to do business. I told the CEO of the company: “Come to Oradea, to see what a business friendly city means.“, added George Haber.

Investor George Haber also appreciates that Oradea is an airy, relaxed and well designed city, with large public spaces and many parks – which in this period of pandemic proves to be even more important.

In terms of adapting to the current crisis, the key word is resilience. In Haber’s view, “resilience means to accept reality, understand it, adapt to it and continue to smile and move forward. At Braintronix, we think every day about what we need to change, we evaluate the possibilities so that we are prepared. The world after COVID-19 will seem similar to the world before, but it will not be the same. Every company that wants to be successful in the future has to fully adjust what it was doing before.”

Positioning as an alternative to China

According to Sebastian Vaduva, Oradea can position itself as an alternative to China and win by doing an evaluation proposition to Western multinational companies in terms of costs, safety, proximity. „We want to reveal that Oradea, specifically and Romania, in general can be a wonderful alternative to China. I think that Romania can position itself extremely well in terms of manufacturing (especially  high-end manufacturing). Out of all the cities în Romania, I think Oradea is the best positioned: you’ve got a very good combination between space (good real estate prices, open spaces) and a very agile administration.”

Internal tourism – an opportunity for Oradea

Tourism is a strongly affected sector due to the social distancing measures in place, and there are no ready-made solutions regarding the way forward. While we may not travel to other countries as much we used to, internal tourism will probably be on the rise. It is worth noting that Oradea has just received the status of tourist resort of national interest, which will enable Oradea to attract more investments and European funds for tourism development. 

Photo: Visit Oradea

The impact of the crisis on the ecosystem of startups in Oradea

Some startups in Oradea proved to be very well positioned in the current situation, such as Smartware, with the Flipsnack application, one of the most well-known international platforms for creating and publishing digital magazines and books, founded in 2011. The tool creates interactive PDFs and also allows the integration of videos and animations in these materials. These features are useful in digitizing educational materials. Following the closing of schools teachers were offered free access for a year. To receive access, teachers are encouraged to contact the company directly. 

“The crisis has not had an impact on the financing of local startups”, states David Achim, Oradea Tech Hub’s Executive Director. Most of the startups in Oradea, except for TypingDNA, are developed on a bootstrapping model, their focus being almost completely on creating and improving their own products. That’s why they haven’t looked for rounds of funding in recent years, except for TypingDNA in particular, which struck an important investment deal at the end of 2019.

According to David, companies need to strike a balance between adapting and maintaining their position. „It’s pretty hard to decide between going forward, pivoting or stopping altogether, but I think that in this situation, pausing the project until things become more clear is the safer option. We have to come with a dose of humbleness, so to speak, and admit that we have never been here before. We are all exploring.”

Photo: Oradea Tech Hub

Launching of the incubator program “Make IT în Oradea”

There are positive developments ahead, with the launch of the “Make IT in Oradea” program, aiming to accelerate the development of product startups, together with the City Hall and other private local actors. The startup incubation program will have an annual budget of € 300,000, granted by the City Hall. The program will include idea jams, hackathons and bootcamps, after which the “award-winning” startups will be selected and they will enter the incubation stage of the program, for 6 months. Established companies pivoting to another product can also participate.

„We want to give some general directions of sectors and industries, but we will not limit ourselves to them. We will adapt according to the ideas and passions of the applicants. These are not yet finalized, but the targeted sectors will most likely include digital security, IoT, Smart City, automotive and in particular, smart cars.”, shared David Achim, Director of Oradea Tech Hub.

Due to the measures taken by the public administration and the good coordination with the private sector, the citizens benefited from a sense of stability and a strengthening of confidence in the efficient management of the municipality. They will also benefit in the gradual resumption of economic activities, which brings Oradea at the forefront of good practices and resilience in crisis situations.

Urban Development Consultant & Editor at Startups&TheCity.