When spring arrives in Prague, its Old Town Square is usually packed with tourists. But this year, nearly 25,000 white crosses invade the cobblestones, painted by activists to mark the brutal toll of Covid-19.
Like much of central and eastern Europe, the Czech Republic passed through the first wave of the pandemic largely unscathed. But since October, it has been ravaged by the virus. In per capita terms, it now has the highest cumulative death toll in the world, with 231 deaths per 100,000 population.
The dark pattern is repeated throughout the region. Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria are now among the 10 most affected countries in the world, according to data from the Financial Times. Slovakia and Poland in the top 25. And as the last wave of the pandemic sweeps the region, the image darkens.
One of the main drivers of the surge in new cases is the advent of the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first discovered in the UK. In Poland, he represents 80 percent new cases, according to Health Minister Adam Niedzielski. Officials say similar levels have been reached in parts of the Czech Republic, while a study last month found the variant to be responsible for 74% of new infections in Slovakia.
“The behavior of people during the last wave was comparable to how they behaved during the second wave last fall,” said Daniel Prokop, founder of PAQ Research in Prague, who monitored various markers. such as number of personal contacts and prevalence. working from home in a group of 2,500 Czechs during the pandemic.
“But … this time it wasn’t enough [to reduce case numbers] because the British variant is so contagious.
Prokop said structural factors had complicated Central and Eastern Europe’s fight against the pandemic. The region has more multigenerational households than Scandinavian countries or Western Europe, putting older people at greater risk of infection from younger relatives. The region’s economies also have a greater share of jobs that cannot be done remotely, he added.
But there were also political mistakes. Much of Central Europe’s success in the first wave was due to a quick lockdown. But since then, restrictions have been less aggressive as governments attempt to juggle economic pressures to keep businesses operating with the public health imperative to keep them closed.
Olga Loblova, a health policy researcher at Cambridge University, said another problem in the Czech Republic was that the government did not respond when it became clear that the testing and traceability system was languishing in the middle of last year, meaning he was unable to cope with the spike in cases from October. “The government has done a lot of things too late,” she said.
In Poland, observers say one of the government’s biggest mistakes was not taking a more rigorous approach to filtering out the thousands of Poles who returned from the UK for Christmas, helping the British variant to spread. faster across the country.
“We were concerned that if nothing was done, it would open the door to the new variant – and this is what happened,” said Maria Ganczak, professor and specialist in epidemiology and infectious diseases at Polish University. by Zielona Gora.
This mistake, she added, was made worse by the decision to ease some restrictions on hotels, ski slopes and other businesses in mid-February, even though the most contagious variant was circulating.
“It was not based on the epidemiological situation. Rather, it was a populist move to please vacationers and let them spend time in ski resorts, ”she said. “We know people are physically and psychologically devastated by lockdowns. But strategies should not be based on emotions, but on scientific prognosis. “
As elsewhere in Europe, the situation has not been helped by the halt in vaccine deployment, inoculations limited by supply problems and vaccine reluctance fueled by the fury over the AstraZeneca coup. In Slovakia, the decision of Prime Minister Igor Matovic to buy Russian vaccine Sputnik V without the agreement of his coalition partners has left his government in turmoil.
Even Hungary, which has bought both Sputnik V and Chinese Sinopharm vaccine to supplement those it receives from the EU, has struggled to bring down the number of cases, despite administering at least a dose of vaccine to 16% of its population.
On Monday, doctors from the Hungarian Medical Chamber in the northwestern county of Gyor-Moson-Sopron called for volunteers to help hospital staff cope with the influx of patients. “The Covid-19 departments in almost all hospitals are extremely overcrowded, there is a shortage of nurses and they are increasingly exhausted,” Laszlo Szijjarto, the county chamber chief, wrote in an online message. .
With increasing pressure on hospitals in the region, countries have started to introduce new restrictions.
The Czech Republic entered a tough new lockdown earlier this month, closing shops and schools and limiting movement, with officials warning its healthcare system on the brink of “utter exhaustion.” Poland followed suit on Saturday, closing hotels, shopping centers and cultural and sports facilities. Officials said new restrictions would be announced by Thursday.
Experts say, however, that such steps should have been taken much sooner, once it became clear that the UK variant was in circulation. “The milk has already been spilled,” Ganczak said.