LONDON – Judging by the latest coronavirus infection statistics, the eastern half of Europe, composed of the former communist states which joined the European Union after the end of the Cold War, is faring much better than the western part of the continent.
The total death toll registered in the dozen or so countries of eastern Europe since the pandemic began is less than the daily mortality statistics in Britain. And even in countries such as Poland and Romania – the region’s biggest and most populous – infection numbers are in the low thousands.
But fears are growing that these supposedly encouraging statistics are just due to the lack of testing facilities, and that a bigger humanitarian crisis is about to hit the region in the near future.
In the initial phase of the coronavirus crisis, eastern Europe appeared to enjoy some advantages. Far fewer people in the region travel to China or other parts of Asia, so the initial transmission route was avoided.
And local governments adopted protective measures early. Poland, for instance, ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and other public places well before key western countries did the same.
Meanwhile the Czech Republic and neighbouring Slovakia became the first countries in Europe to impose mandatory mask-wearing in public.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis even went as far as addressing his country’s parliament wearing a mask, while other leading politicians took part in health campaigns by posting pictures of themselves wearing protective gear on social media.
But if eastern Europe was partially protected in the initial stages of the epidemic, it got the full blast of it from western Europe, where large numbers of east Europeans currently work.
Up to 4 million out of Romania’s nominal 20 million-strong population are employed in the western half of the continent, and particularly in the worst coronavirus epicentres, such as Italy or Spain.
And no less than a million Poles – out of a population of around 38 million – work in Britain alone, with many more in other countries.
It was, therefore, only a matter of time before the pandemic moved further east. Paradoxically, the closure of frontiers ordered by east European nations in an effort to insulate themselves actually made the situation worse, as many Poles or Romanians living in the west rushed home.
The reason coronavirus infection rates in the east do not look bad at the moment is simply because of lack of testing. Medical resources are inadequate partly due to the fact that these countries are still catching up with the western half of the continent, but also because large numbers of doctors and nurses have left the region to work in the richer west.
Even the Czech Republic, the region’s wealthiest on a per capita basis, did little to provide the face masks it ordered its citizens to wear; people were left to manufacture their own or rely on the ingenuity of others.
And, in Romania, which received testing kits and other medical aid from South Korea, Health Minister Victor Costache was forced to resign last week after he claimed that all the residents of Bucharest, the capital, will be tested for the virus. That was false; Romania cannot even test all its medical personnel, let alone the 2 million residents of its capital city.
All the region’s governments know that the worst is still to come. “We are entering a new phase of the epidemic,” Poland’s Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski told a press conference at the start of this week; infections “will be rising at an exponential pace,” he warned.
In Hungary, parliament has adopted sweeping legislation giving its government powers to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.
Some officials in the European Union and human rights NGOs have criticised the move as “authoritarian”, but senior Hungarian minister Katalin Novak described the law as “essential in authorising the government to continue fighting effectively against Covid-19.”
Still, the region remains woefully unprepared for what may be coming, especially as the virus spreads to the vulnerable elderly, who are far poorer than the average population and often live in the countryside, where medical services are sometimes non-existent.
And while the region’s governments remain preoccupied with handling the pandemic, they are also increasingly gloomy about their future economic prospects.
For the fear is that many of the east Europeans who have returned home during the current health crisis will not be able to reclaim their jobs in the west once the crisis is over.