Eastern Europeans faring better than their western neighbours in coronavirus pandemic

People standing on the Vltava river bank in Prague on April 29, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - When the coronavirus first struck Europe, most governments instinctively assumed that the countries of central and eastern Europe would fare the worst as they are poorer than the rest of the continent and their public services are less developed to cope with the huge strain of a national health emergency.

To everyone's relief, that did not turn out to be the case. In many respects, the former communist nations of central and eastern Europe that joined the European Union only over the past two decades have done better than their western brethren.

The division between the eastern and western parts of Europe, which dates to the end of World War II almost exactly 75 years ago, is not just about history. Because the countries of eastern Europe languished under communist control for almost half a century, their economies remain less developed.

And although the economies of the former communist East have roughly doubled in size over the past two decades, the gap remains. Czechia and Slovakia - the richest in the region on a gross domestic product per capita basis - are still about 20 per cent below Germany's wealth, while Romanians and Bulgarians, among the poorest, are 50 per cent poorer than average Germans.

Still, when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the central and eastern Europeans have done much better than anyone dared to predict.

They are all reporting far lower infection rates than western Europe. And although this may be attributed to fewer tests being conducted, the reality still is that mortality rates have been very low.

While Spain has recorded over 500 deaths per million residents and France and Britain have suffered a death rate of around 400 per million each, Poland - the biggest country in central Europe - has had a coronavirus-related mortality rate of only 17 per million, and even Romania - the second biggest nation and one of the worst-hit - recorded only 38 deaths per million.

One chief reason for such encouraging statistics is the fact that the international mobility of the central and eastern Europeans is lower, and as a consequence coronavirus infections which started in the western part of the continent took longer to hit the region.

Governments in central and eastern Europe also used the head start they got - which amounted to about a month - efficiently.

Unlike the British government, for instance, which believed itself to be exceptionally well-prepared only to discover that it was not, the nations on the eastern part of the continent made no such assumptions.

Face masks were quickly made compulsory, and politicians such as Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis were among the first in Europe to appear in public wearing them.

Mr Babis is so convinced that the imposition of compulsory masks made all the difference that he launched a public appeal to the United States President to do the same: "Mr President @realDonaldTrump, try tackling the virus the Czech way," he argued in a recent tweet.

Face masks even became fashion accessories - students at Umprum Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague, the Czech capital, for instance, competed in producing innovative new masks.

And although it is debatable whether the wearing of masks is the only explanation for the region's slower infection rates, the fact remains that central and east Europeans took all health precaution measures seriously, largely because they were only too aware of just how exposed they could be.

Ironically, it was their perceived weakness that has proven to be their strength in dealing with the pandemic.

Nonetheless, political tensions between the two halves of the continent are mounting.

Poland has come under criticism for deciding to go ahead with its presidential election on May 10 despite the pandemic.

The vote will be by post in order to limit the risks of infection, but only about a third of Polish citizens are predicted to vote, so what is intended to be a great exercise in democracy could turn into a farce.

"The procedure of voting by post in this form and time, as is proposed by the ruling party, are pseudo-elections. We will not take part," reads a protest issued by former Polish presidents, prime ministers, and even Mr Donald Tusk, who just concluded his term as the president of the European Council, the body which unites all EU heads of states and governments.

Meanwhile, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission, has indirectly rebuked the Hungarian government for assuming emergency powers to rule by decree during the pandemic. "Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate," she warned.

Still, and at least for the moment, it is precisely the eastern half of the continent that western Europeans never took very seriously which appears to have emerged from the current crisis in better shape.

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