In the countries of central Europe, which during spring seemed to provide a best-practice model for keeping coronavirus at bay, case numbers have risen sharply, and governments in the region fear that their health systems are close to capacity and may struggle to cope. Central Europe is now just as badly hit as countries further west, and by some parameters is doing worse.
The Visegrad Four group of nations – Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – were all notable for their success in keeping case numbers low earlier in the year, even as gruesome statistics of deaths and hospitalisations came out of western Europe on a daily basis.
The Czech Republic’s response was so impressive it was invited by Austria to join a small group of nations, including Norway and New Zealand, which had succeeded in keeping the virus at bay and would share best practices.
But that rosy picture has rapidly faded over the past few weeks, as the country has struggled to contain an infection rate that rose to 15,000 new cases a day at its peak at the beginning of the month, making it the worst-hit country in Europe on a per-capita basis.
All four countries are under some kind of lockdown. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán had been reluctant to introduce a second lockdown despite closing the country’s borders in early September, but finally relented and introduced one this week. He said that without it the country’s medical system would have only a 50% chance of coping.
Back in spring, many reasons were suggested for why central Europe was doing so well, including imposing early lockdowns and the swift and broad adoption of mask-wearing. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, lockdown came before there was a single Covid-related death, while in Britain, there were 357 dead before the decision was made.
“The measures were started very quickly in central Europe in spring. We almost completely closed the country and we didn’t have any deaths,” said Richard Kollar, a mathematician from Comenius University in Bratislava, who has been studying coronavirus models. “There was also big public compliance with the measures, in a way you don’t get in other places. And immediately we started to wear face masks,”
Even taken together, these factors do not seem to explain fully why central Europe was so much less affected in spring but is so badly hit now.
“We don’t know the accurate answer to this question,” said a spokesperson for Budapest’s city hall, which is run by the opposition to Orbán. “The pandemic came to Hungary relatively late in the spring, so there was some time to prepare and look at what other countries did. We were relatively lucky during the first wave, and that may have planted a false sense of security in some.”
What has particularly puzzled scientists is that in spring there was very little transmission in the home. Typically, when someone was infected, they did not infect others in their household, whereas this time that is happening more.
“There has been no change in the virus, so there must be some other reason why spreading in the households was much lower in the spring and now it’s higher. We see this in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. They see spreading within households as the main driver and they didn’t see it before,” said Kollar.
Various theories have been floated, including that there may have been an outbreak of a different coronavirus in the region last winter that provided cross-immunity for a period, but has now worn off. Nobody knows for sure.
What is indisputable is that hospitals across the region are now struggling with an increase in patients. Hungary registered 619 deaths from the virus last week, a huge leap from mid-September, when daily deaths were in single digits. The Hungarian government has proposed a major salary increase for doctors, but at the same time mandated that they will not be allowed to work second jobs in private hospitals, prompting many to consider quitting.
“There are no reserves in the system. We need every single professional … If people quit en masse, the healthcare system will collapse,” Judit Tóth, the deputy head of the Hungarian doctors’ union, told RTL Klub television earlier this week.
Both Warsaw and Prague have been readying field hospitals in stadiums to cope with an expected influx of Covid patients. “What concerns me most is not the growing number of infected, but the growing number of people who require hospitalisation and intensive care as well as the growing number of deaths,” said Roman Prymula, then the Czech health minister, last month.
Over the past week, the numbers in the country have started to come down gradually, and next week the first and second grades of elementary school will move back to in-person learning. Slovakia, meanwhile, is pioneering a mass testing programme in the hope of bringing down its own numbers. Two-thirds of the population were tested with rapid antigen tests over a two-day period at the beginning of the month, though scientists are split over whether such a broad testing programme can achieve results.
In Hungary, bars and restaurants have been open and even football matches with spectators were allowed until this week. “There are moments when we must take action, without any hesitation,” said Orbán, in an interview explaining the 8pm curfew and other lockdown measures that were finally introduced this week. Even then, his government simultaneously introduced a proposed constitutional amendment preventing gender changes, suggesting they are as occupied with fighting a culture war as with fighting the virus.
The opposition to Orbán says he should have introduced measures much earlier. “The government is in a fluster. They seem unable to handle this coherently and consistently,” said the spokesman for Budapest city hall.
Additional reporting by Flora Garamvolgyi