20,000 white crosses: the balance sheet of Covid in Central and Eastern Europe
PRAGUE – More than 20,000 white crosses have appeared painted on the cobblestones of a medieval square in central Prague, each depicting a victim of Covid-19 – an effort highlighting the devastation of a pandemic that has hit Europe in recent weeks from the east and central.
Like many countries in the region, the Czech Republic withstood the first wave of the coronavirus early last year much better than Italy and many other countries in Western Europe. But it has since suffered one of the highest Covid death rates in the world and has struggled over the past month to contain a new wave of infections.
Hungary – whose far-right populist leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban bragged about his government’s response to the pandemic last year – also has record death rates, with more than 4,000 dead last month.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and other countries in the region lifted pandemic restrictions last summer after successful initial efforts to contain the virus. But with the increase in cases and deaths in recent weeks, they are now working to reverse the damage.
Hungary and Slovakia, both members of the European Union, are seeking help for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, although it has yet to be approved by EU regulators. Hungary has also started using a vaccine made in China that has not been approved in the European Union. Serbia, which is not a member of the bloc, has bought millions of doses of the vaccine from Russia and China, as well as Western companies.
One of the main causes of rising infection rates is a more contagious variant of the virus that was first identified in Britain in December and has since spread rapidly in the Czech Republic, Poland and elsewhere. in Eastern and Central Europe.
Poland on Saturday ordered hotels and stores, other than grocery stores, to close until further notice after an upsurge in infections, at least 60% of which is the variant first detected in Britain .
Deeply polarized politics across the region have hampered countries’ responses to the pandemic, with parties that are out of power – whether pro-Western liberals or right-wing populists – or junior partners in political parties. fragile coalitions regularly attacking what their rivals do in government.
Anti-government protesters in Serbia staged small protests over the weekend of the closure of restaurants and bars, and public health experts in Hungary complained about the Orban government’s inconsistent response to the pandemic.
In Slovakia, a decision to import vaccines from Russia pushed a coalition government to the brink of collapse earlier this month after a rift between lawmakers over the decision. The per capita coronavirus death rate in Slovakia is double that of France and just behind that of the Czech Republic.
The painted crosses that appeared in Old Town Square in the Czech capital Prague on Monday were the work of A Million Moments for Democracy, a group of activists who oppose Prime Minister Andrej Babis and have staged large protests of street against him. The crosses, numbering more than 20,000, represented the nearly 25,000 people who have died from the virus in the country – a huge number in a country of around 10 million people.
The Czech Republic, like Slovakia, is bitterly divided over the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Although published data indicates that it has an effectiveness rate of over 90%, critics in Moscow in Europe see it as a ” tool of hybrid warfare ”which is deployed to divide the West.
Czech President Milos Zeman, long known for his pro-Kremlin views, said last month he had asked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to organize Sputnik deliveries to his country. When the Czech Ministry of Health hesitated on the idea, Zeman unsuccessfully demanded that the minister be fired.
Vaccines, however, do not offer a quick escape from the pandemic. Until large numbers of residents are vaccinated, vaccines can give people a false sense of security, causing them to stop wearing masks and take other precautions. Serbia, Europe’s best vaccinator after Britain, has seen infection rates skyrocket in recent weeks, prompting authorities to impose new partial lockdowns.
Building on the European Union’s hesitant efforts to order and distribute vaccines, the Czech government has sought to reduce its infection and death rate by imposing some of Europe’s toughest restrictions.
After a three-week lockdown with shops and schools closed, mandatory employee testing by companies and movement restrictions, the number of Covid-10 patients entering hospital has started to decline. This has slowly eased the burden on hospitals that were at their limit last month, and Czech hospitals are now reporting that 12% of their ICU beds are unoccupied.
Petr Smejkal, the chief epidemiologist at the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague, blamed what he described as a series of misjudgments on the part of the authorities for his country’s dismal record.
“First, we missed the start of the second wave and failed to contain the surge in infections at the end of the summer,” he said. “Secondly, we relaxed the restrictions before Christmas, and thirdly, we did not sufficiently follow the British transfer at the beginning of January.”
“Unfortunately, the government did not listen to its experts,” he added.
The Hungarian government has been particularly resistant to expert advice which called for greater vigilance in the face of the crisis. Rather, it sought public opinion on the issue of reopening via an online questionnaire.
A Politico report This month Hungary, despite Russian, Chinese and Western vaccines, had one of the lowest coronavirus inoculation rates in the European Union.
Some municipalities urged the Hungarian government to allow them to set up vaccination points to speed up the process, but were rejected. Critics say Mr Orban’s government wants all the praise for getting people vaccinated, even if it means slower vaccinations in cities – some of which, like the capital Budapest, are controlled by the opposition.
“There is complete chaos in the administration of the shootings and the provision of documents,” said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, an opposition politician widely seen as a potential candidate for prime minister in 2022.
Orban’s opponents, long unable to form a united front against him, recently agreed to issue a collective challenge to his party in next year’s national elections. Critics have challenged the government’s obscure process to secure vaccines and medical equipment.
“Obviously, it would be much more effective to involve municipalities” in the deployment of the vaccine, said Karacsony. “But they won’t, because they don’t want the opposition to take advantage of it.”
Hana de Goeij brought back from Prague, and Benjamin novak from Budapest. Andrew Higgins contribution to the Warsaw reports.