It is difficult to imagine how our post-COVID-19 reality will look like but returning to business as usual is not likely.
We were all caught unprepared. The coronavirus upended our societies and brought our economies to the edge. As of 21 April, the number of confirmed cases globally surpassed 2.5 million, a number that will increase, as many countries will reach an infection peak only in May.
Compared to Italy, Spain and France, countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have managed to keep the outbreak under relative control, by imposing aggressive containment measures early on. To flatten the curve, governments in all Visegrad countries, except for Poland, declared a state of emergency by mid-March and closed their borders before casualties were confirmed.
Uncertainty is the defining feature of today and tomorrow, as the “Great Lockdown” continues to impact our health, politics, societies and economies. As we look at the CEE region through the complex lens of the COVID-19 crisis, it is worth considering the three most important challenges that countries need to tackle in the coming weeks and months.
Some challenges will need to be handled in close coordination and with the European Union.
The Economic Challenge
The most critical challenge remains the economic fallout caused by the global pandemic and halting of most economic activities. Worldwide, our economies will be reduced by about 9 trillion dollars. To put this figure into perspective, that is six times more than the economies of the Visegrad countries, Romania and Bulgaria, combined.
The CEE economies are expected to contract anywhere between 3.5 to 5.5 per cent GDP, while unemployment rates will surge, at least temporarily. As a region, CEE is less competitive than our Western neighbours. We are also less efficient, as our productivity growth is half compared to the rest of Europe.
These challenges are compounded by the global pandemic. Regional leaders need to put forward unprecedented fiscal and monetary policies to provide liquidity and capital, prevent unemployment from surging even further, and tailor economic responses based on the most vulnerable sectors of their economies.
The European Union put forward a rescue package of about 540 billion euros, meant to help member states alleviate immediate consequences. Governments of CEE need to seize this opportunity and marshal allocated funds to their rescue. This includes an increased capacity to absorb and spend money, using funds to reinforce the health system and save lives, and enabling businesses to restore activity after COVID-19 instead of filing for bankruptcy.
The need for cash and investments will also transform CEE countries into targets of foreign powers like China and Russia, attempting to grab influence in the European Union’s backyard through economic means.
The “17+1” Initiative led by Beijing will likely become the perfect avenue to offer Central and Eastern Europeans immediate relief. This might, in turn, threaten the geopolitical orientation of the region long term and create subversive dependencies that will show face at a later stage in the foreign policy or security realms.
The (Dis)Information Challenge
The efforts to spread false narratives and disinformation, while seeding distrust among our populations did not go into lockdown together with our economies. Quite the opposite, the ‘info-demic’ has been expanding at an infection rate at least as high is of COVID-19, as shown in the EUvsDisinformation analysis.
Regionally, the most viral narratives on social media, as identified by GLOBSEC, are related to “China and Russia as the only countries providing actual help” and that “the EU has failed its citizens and has abandoned its member states at the time of crisis”.
Country-specific messages, such as “it is actually the 5G network, which is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic” in Czechia and “the Americans are using the epidemic to secretly take over military assets and airfields, as a preparation for war against Russia” in Slovakia, build on pre-existing disinformation narratives.
From anti-American sentiments in Slovakia to an all-out war against migration across the region, the disinformation and misinformation campaigns aim to create distrust into our governments, the European Union and the United States, creating space for nefarious political forces to advance a non-liberal agenda.
Trust in national and international institutions will be key in the post-COVID-19 response, as decision-makers prepare for the most painful period of our lifetime. Governments in CEE need to work towards ensuring a high level of public support for recovery measures, through increased political stability, accountability and transparency.
The Political Challenge
In trying to control the outbreak with several big unknown variables on the horizon, governments embraced emergency powers that look more like our recent past. In different circumstances, such measures would have been met with solid opposition, even mass protests. For now, they are met with a high degree of social consensus both in the region, but also across Europe. The state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe has been under scrutiny since before the pandemic.
Now, additional concerns about further democratic erosion and weaponisation of the pandemic to consolidate power through undemocratic means have surfaced. The Polish decision to hold presidential elections in May and the Hungarian ‘emergency bill’ that gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán powers to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time are seen as evidence in this regard.
Political leaders in Central and Eastern Europe should ensure that their actions and decisions will not undermine long term the very core principles of our democratic societies. All decisions should be temporary, respond to the pandemic, respect democratic principles and undergo appropriate judicial control.
The other day, in an article for Financial Times, Constanze Stelzenmüller called this phenomenon “the hour of the executive”.
Yet, this hour might turn into a litmus test for our democratically elected governments in the region, as they walk the fine line between fundamental rights and freedoms, and coercive behaviour in the name of national security.
It is difficult to imagine how our post-COVID-19 reality will look like. Returning to business as usual is not likely. As we enter the worst economic situation of our lifetime, our liberal democratic order will be challenged, and our information space instrumentalised for political gains. Countries in CEE have now the opportunity to show they are resilient, that they have learned the lessons of the past, and that they respect the rule of law and democratic principles.
We must be prepared to fight this pandemic in solidarity with our European partners. Failing to do so might reverse decades of progress to make the East-West divide an issue of the past.
This article was originally published on the Visegrad Insight website on 23 April 2020.