Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 13.31.03 18th August, 2020

“It was a long period of time, I’d never worked here for that long in one stretch,” says 45-year-old Dana Rosca over the phone from Vienna on a Sunday morning, shortly before she starts her working day. 

“It was hard,” she says. 

For almost a decade Dana has been travelling back and forth every month from her village in Transylvania, Romania, to Vienna in Austria, where she spends four weeks at a time looking after a 95-year-old lady in need of round-the-clock care. Over the years, being periodically estranged from her family has been understandably hard, but it is a needs-must situation.

Dana works abroad for one reason: to earn higher wages. Her monthly salary is more than three times the amount she would earn as a care worker in her home country. Wage disparities between EU countries have led millions to emigrate. An estimated 3.4 million Romanians moved abroad to live and work between 2007, when the country joined the EU, and 2017.

“I had thoughts about being alone here and getting sick, and infecting the lady I take care of.”

But even years of working abroad didn’t quite prepare Dana for the coronavirus pandemic, which meant she was stuck in Vienna for almost two months from early March to the end of May, when Austria locked down. “It triggered a lot of emotions in me,” she says. “The uncertainty first of all, because I didn’t know what was about to happen, nor when or how I could return home.”

It’s hard to overestimate how important family time is these days for Dana, who was hit last year by a huge personal tragedy. Last summer, her daughter, then seven months pregnant and about to get married, was killed in a road accident along with her partner, not far from the family home.

“It made [being stuck in Austria] even harder, it amplified the situation,” she says, her voice breaking as she tries to hold back tears. “We were supposed to have a parastas [a Christian Orthodox memorial service] and I couldn’t be there. Faith helped me get through it.”

“It was nice to spend so much time with family… but it started to get hard financially.”

To add to the pain and difficulties, Dana was very scared she’d fall ill with Covid-19 while away from her family. “I had thoughts about being alone here and getting sick, and infecting the lady I take care of,” she says.

Austria relies heavily on care workers from Eastern Europe. Romanians make up the largest proportion of foreign workers in the country’s care sector. Like many migrant workers who move to wealthier countries, families back home are reliant on remittances. Romanians abroad send home around 500 billion euros annually. For most of the past five years, this has accounted for more than 3% of Romania’s annual GDP. Last April, the World Bank warned that the coronavirus pandemic will see remittances in 2020 decline globally by 20%, which will plunge many families into poverty. 

I know Dana’s story on a personal level. Dana alternates care duties with my mother-in-law, 52-year-old Elena Cindea, who is from the same quiet village in Romania. When one is at home, the other is in Austria.  

“I miss many important family events back home. Birthdays, christenings… And when my husband broke his leg last year, I was stuck here.”

While lockdown further estranged Dana from her family, my mother-in-law was able to spend an unprecedented amount of time with hers – more than she has done in many years. 

“It was nice to spend so much time with family,” says Elena, who recently returned home from her own two-month stint at work, from June to August, to make up for time lost during the lockdown. “It’s better than being alone [in Austria].”

But while spending an unusually long amount of time with family was a welcome experience, it came at a cost. “It started to get hard financially,” she says. “The Austrian state paid me 1,000 euros, which is less than what I would have earned by working.”

Elena has worked abroad for the last 14 years. She spent the first five in Germany, and has been a carer for the elderly in Vienna for the past nine. Her two-month post-lockdown stint was the longest stretch she spent away for the last nine years. “It was hard psychologically,” she says.

“[If I stayed and worked in Romania] we’d be scraping by month-to-month. That’s why I left and that’s why I wouldn’t come back.”

Trying to balance work and family life while prospering financially is an age-old dilemma that many migrant workers face. Even without a pandemic, being away from family for long periods of time can weigh heavily on people’s mental health. Communicating regularly with loved ones via digital technology has become easier over the years, but it’s not a replacement for everything.

“I miss many important family events back home,” says Dana. “Birthdays, christenings… And when my husband broke his leg last year, I was stuck here.”

Both Dana and Elena tell me they would prefer to live and work in Romania, but low wages discourage that entirely. 

Many Romanian migrant workers, especially those who live in the countryside, use their wages for home improvements and basic necessities such as food and healthcare. With local wages they would struggle to meet these needs. “We’d be scraping by month-to-month,” Dana says. “That’s why I left and that’s why I wouldn’t come back.”

“Even without a pandemic, being away from family for long periods of time can weigh heavily on people’s mental health.”

This Romanian emigration has led to a labour shortage in the country that has adversely affected important sectors, including healthcare. A report published this year by Eurostat stated: “In 2019, Romanian citizens of working age (20-64) residing abroad within the EU accounted for about a fifth (19.4%) of the population residing in Romania, making them by far the largest national group among EU mobile citizens.” There is little indication this will change in the years to come.

Coronavirus infections are now rising sharply in Romania. There is talk of a possible second lockdown to prevent the country’s stretched healthcare system from descending into a tailspin.

For those who divide their work and family lives between two countries, the financial and personal uncertainty brought about the pandemic has served to highlight the plight of migrant workers. Many fulfill essential roles, such as looking after a country’s elderly citizens. 

Dana’s shift is set to start in about 15 minutes, which begins with her cooking lunch for the lady she cares for. Her final words are not uttered lightly: “I would love to be able to work back home and to not have to leave”.

This article originally appeared here