Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, from Slovakia to the Baltic states, have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic relatively fast and assertively in early March during the initial outbreak. Today, they are widely quoted as success stories in tackling the pandemic, with relatively low numbers of confirmed cases and deaths. The highest level of confirmed cases has been recorded in Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic, while the lowest numbers are in Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia. In general, the CEE societies support the measures introduced by the governments (on average around 50 per cent of support).
From what we know now, there are four main factors that could explain why the virus spreads— culture, climate, demographic and government response. In CEE, its “cold” culture makes it relatively easy to maintain social distancing, and people obeyed the government-imposed restrictions. Demographics are also in CEE’s favour. On average, the percentage of the elderly population is lower than in the European Union (19.8 per cent). The elderly population is the smallest in Slovakia (15.8 per cent) and Poland (17.2 per cent), and the largest in Bulgaria (21.2 per cent) and Lithuania (19.7 per cent).
The success of the CEE’s policies has been based on two factors—early lockdown measures and social distancing. The first cases in CEE were reported later than in Western Europe, but most countries quickly declared a state of emergency. Wearing face masks and gloves was made mandatory fairly early on and even the Slovakian president was seen with a mask. Borders, including international airports, were simultaneously sealed (following up by closing the EU external border). Cross-border commuting for work, which is high especially in Slovakia, Croatia and Estonia, was forbidden, and only citizens and residents were allowed in. All people coming from abroad were required to isolate at home or quarantined in special government-administered centres. Schools and kindergartens have been closed, and restrictions on public gatherings and inter-city travel (in Romania) have been in place. Business activities were restricted to the buying and selling of essential items only until the beginning of May. Special shopping hours for senior citizens and a maximum capacity per cashier (or per square meter) in shops have been also introduced.
The CEE governments have been also creative in tracking the geolocation of citizens or coming up with contact-tracing apps for the purposes of self-monitoring. In Slovakia, for instance, data on the large number of Slovaks who visited northern Italy and Austria in late February/early March helped the government decide early on to close the border. Poland and the Czech Republic developed apps to reduce the workload of the police, which was tasked with monitoring compliance with quarantine rules, and to collect information about contacts with COVID-19 positive persons.
From being among the first few countries to impose lockdowns, CEE countries have also been the first to resume social and economic activity. The process of deconfinement usually happens under four phases. First, for example, is opening public spaces, non-essential stores, restaurants and hotels under strict sanitary requirements and allowing cross-border commuting. Then comes opening nurseries, kindergartens and schools and borders as the very end.
The most awaited measure is, without any doubt, opening the internal European borders. In CEE, the restoration of the Schengen space will happen gradually, as suggested by the European Commission. It means that before the border is opened fully, restrictions on travel will be lifted in areas with few or no cases. For example, Baltic countries are discussing lifting their border controls and Slovakia has been promoting “mini Schengens”, which would imply lifting border with Austria and the Czech Republic before the ones with Poland or Hungary. The idea of making a corridor for Slovak and Czech tourists to Croatia this summer was also circulated.
In general, it is too early to tell if these policies will be efficient in the long term. Scientists do not have enough data yet to get a full epidemiological picture. What we do know, however, is that given the lessons learnt in the past months, CEE will be much better prepared for a second wave, if it comes. Importantly, the CEE’s success in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic should not be overshadowed by the recent attempts by the Polish and Hungarian governments to undermine liberal democracy.
The article was originally published on the Observer Research Foundation website on 16 May