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What people got wrong about the COVID-19 pandemic in Central and Eastern Europe

Prague, Czech Republic- Last spring, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Europe, it was impossible not to notice the divide in the number of cases and scope of national outbreaks between Western countries on one hand, and Central and Eastern Europe on the other.

Many people were quick to jump to conclusions about national and regional stereotypes throughout the continent: Europe‘s rebellious and undisciplined Southerners / Westerners were pitted against the disciplined and obedient Easterners / Northerners.

Several months later, and as many European countries once again face a surge in coronavirus cases, it’s time to take a closer look and put those rather questionable shortcuts in perspective.

First things first, I evidently cannot expect nor intend to hold people accountable for what they wrote five months ago. But it is critical to remark that so many commentators and pundits with influential platforms, both in the West and in the East, did and continue to do a rather sloppy work when it comes to addressing the continent and its differences. This type of rhetoric is exactly what reproduces and intensifies intra-European divisions and makes it so difficult to move forward together.

As you might have seen circulating on social media, there were many articles about “Why has eastern Europe suffered less from coronavirus than the west?” (The Guardian) or “How central and eastern Europe contained coronavirus?” (Financial Times).

While some of these articles did raise important questions regarding the COVID pandemic’s developments in Central and Eastern Europe, most of them lacked any detailed analysis and understanding of local dynamics. Needless to say, they haven‘t aged well when looking back on them today. Indeed, Central and Eastern Europe has not been faring well since mid-summer and some countries, like the Czech Republic, now have among the highest infection rates among EU member states.

What did those commentators get wrong?

COVID response in Central and Eastern Europe: Early lockdowns, really?

While many were pointing out that early lockdowns were instrumental in limiting the number of cases, they tend to forget that Central and Eastern European countries did not react as “early” as is often suggested. While they did react a lot faster after reporting their first cases, there was already at that time a growing consensus in Europe to impose such lockdowns.

Very few people had contracted the virus in Central and Eastern Europe when the whole continent went into a lockdown: Czechia’s lockdown started on March 16, for instance, the same day as it did in France, but sixty times more people subsequently died in the latter.

This is not to diminish the merit of Central and Eastern European governments, but to point out that Europe as a whole acted rather carelessly about the virus, and only countries that did not have a massive spread of infections by mid-March could really hope to be spared from out-of-hand outbreaks and from the first wave of deaths. The key factor seems to have been the much deeper connections of Western European businesses and populations with the rest of the world, and especially with China and other Asian countries – as well as the presence, or lack thereof, of transport and aerial hubs.

Cultural essentialism and national stereotypes

Another key explanation in some articles on the topic was the cultural bias. It contrasted the “extreme civility” (Le Monde) of Central Europe with the alleged incivility of the West. Respected political analyst of the Czech business daily Hospodářské Noviny Petr Honzejk even went as far as to link the successful lockdown in his region to the “echoes of totalitarianism”, citing readiness to follow harsh rules, a mentality of fear and a tendency to snitch on others.

In The Guardian, commentators pointed to a more prosaic factor and cited distrust in the system, and especially in some of the region’s crumbling health systems, which prompted citizens to take greater precautions to avoid falling sick and having to go to hospital.

Those explanations have a key fault, and take populations for pre-programmed, nationally-homogeneous machines that either have the right codes and behaviour to face a given situation, or don’t. What is being completely ignored, and what should be at the heart of any careful analysis on the matter, are the dynamic relationship between public authorities’ responses and local public opinions. The fact that some countries and populations did more voluntarily agree to wear masks in public doesn’t come from genetic predispositions or cultural traits, but rather from a strong and consistent message sent by every actor involved: public authorities and government, opposition and civil society, social and cultural institutions, etc.

On the contrary, in countries like France, top officials like Health Minister Agnès Buzyn was downplaying the risk of coronavirus in late January and stating that “the mask protects from nothing”. A similar thing happened in Belgium, where Ministry of Health Maggie De Bock was still stating as late as early April that wearing masks “does not make sense scientifically speaking”. No wonder, then, that French or Belgian citizens, to cite only a few, were not too keen to embrace the mask. Yet, once the authorities got their discourse figured out out and wearing masks became mandatory more or less everywhere, people were pretty compliant, as I was able to observe first-hand in Paris and elsewhere in France over the summer.

This is in stark contrast with what happened in Central and Eastern Europe, where governments sent a more consistent message on the virus and on the mask from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. While mishaps did occur, and governments also tried to cover their lack of preparedness and insufficient mask supplies, they still urged citizens to follow scientific guidelines.

As I witnessed in the Czech Republic, citizens responded positively: despite anger directed at the government and authorities, they stepped up, as exemplified by the mass movement of people sewing their masks at home for themselves, their friends, family or at-risk people as a sign of solidarity. Public trust in the government actually rose during the early phase of the pandemic.

A Polish policeman inspects cars at the border between Poland and Germany

Central and Eastern Europe: Keeping it civil?

If it was indeed true that the “civil and disciplined” Central and Eastern Europeans, marked by the collective unconscious formed by decades of totalitarian rule, were programmed to face pandemics by being model citizens with responsible leaders, then the following months would not have happened as they did.

Political gimmicks quickly came to the fore, ruining the “model behaviour” of those countries, thus allowing the virus to spread during the summer and leading to the spike in infections we’re experiencing at the moment. While events unfolded in a different way in every country, they all had in common an explosive mix of politicization of pandemic measures, an irresponsible loosening of restrictions by over-triumphant authorities and a general slackening of social distancing rules and sanitary precautions by the population. Facing a decline in public opinion’s trust in their ability to manage the crisis, local governments now face a much harder task to convince their citizen to re-accept restrictions.

The best example is Poland, where political games quickly undermined the population’s willingness to accept restrictions. In April, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) already started to play down the pandemic to avoid postponing the May presidential elections, where their success seemed guaranteed. While the main opposition party (PO) starkly criticised the government and threatened to boycott the vote, it then quickly changed its gears when the vote was postponed by six weeks and an opposition victory seemed possible. Infection numbers were higher, but masks were coming down as people rushed to political meetings. In August, as the situation worsened, the government reintroduced some measures, but had lost much of its credibility on this question following the weeks-long electoral melodrama surrounding the presidential election, among other contentious issues.

The same can be said for Czechia, which is now the most hardly hit country in Central Europe: there are currently almost as many active cases in the country as in Germany, a country eight times more populous. This is in part due to the triumphant behaviour of Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government who, as it turns out, might somehow have believed the misconceptions and fairy-tales about national and regional exceptionalism mentioned earlier.

Contrary to the cautious and responsible rhetoric of the beginnings, public authorities‘ discourse hammered down the idea that the pandemic was, well, over. The ruling coalition spent more time making sure not to ruin people’s holiday than preparing for a second wave. As a result, the population is now less inclined to accept the government’s messages and restrictions, while COVID-related conspiracy theories are gaining ground. The first anti-mask demonstrations could be expected in the next few weeks.

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek greets his Polish counterpart with an "elbow-bump" in Prague

Less generalisation, more analysis

As the Czech and Polish examples show, a dynamic socio-political situation led to rapid changes in the response of the authorities, the behaviour of citizens and the scope of the pandemic. These two countries and their response to COVID-19 evidently do not represent the whole Central and Eastern Europe.

But regardless of the country or region we’re looking at, it would be wise to refrain from hasty generalisations based on cheap cultural stereotypes. Instead, we should look at the way local dynamics shape local responses in an evolving and ever-changing manner. While the cultural viewpoint can be a strong factor in explaining such phenomena, passing national stereotypes for facts is harmful, does not help foster a better understanding of national and regional differences and just passes as sloppy journalism which we have to denounce and combat.

Main photo credit: AP Photo / Petr David Josek

By Adrien Beauduin

A Prague-based correspondent, André is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.