Why has eastern Europe suffered less from coronavirus than the west?

Most important reason for discrepancy appears to be implementation of early lockdown

The coronavirus map of Europe makes one thing clear: the richer nations of western Europe have suffered more from the virus than countries in the eastern half of the EU, almost without exceptions.

Comparing figures from different countries can be fraught with difficulty, and many factors can potentially skew the numbers. But the comparison between western Europe on the one hand, and central and eastern Europe on the other, shows a difference in coronavirus rates that is too stark to ignore.

Even the worst-hit central and eastern European countries have infection and death rates per million inhabitants much lower than western European nations, and in some the statistics are truly remarkable: Slovakia has recorded just 1,413 confirmed cases and 25 deaths. Neighbouring Austria, widely regarded as having tackled the challenge of the virus successfully, nevertheless has more than 10 times the number of infections and 20 times the deaths as Slovakia, with a population less than twice the size.

death rates

Numerous contributing causes have been mooted for the discrepancy in various individual countries: lower life expectancy meaning fewer vulnerable elderly people still alive, lower population density, fewer flights to China, lower testing rates or even just sheer luck. The obligatory wearing of masks outdoors, now common to much of Europe, was implemented very early on by the Czech Republic and Slovakia and may also have helped stop the spread.

The most important reason, however, seems to be the early lockdown implemented by almost all countries in the region. While in Britain and other western European nations, public events and gatherings were still going on in the second and third weeks of March, in central and eastern Europe, governments saw what was happening in Italy and implemented rapid lockdowns.

In many places, fear of underfunded and struggling healthcare systems being quickly overwhelmed helped with decisiveness.

lockdown dates

“The likes of Sweden and the UK had a greater sense that they could weigh up a range of policy choices rather than being bounced by the situation into preventing an absolute meltdown of their healthcare systems,” said Ben Stanley, a political scientist at Warsaw’s SWPS University.

This also made populations more willing to follow the orders, with fewer of the dissenting voices seen in western Europe or the US. “It was exactly the fact we felt vulnerable about our healthcare system that made people follow the lockdown. It’s because you don’t trust the system,” said Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist.

Greece, which also implemented an early and strict lockdown to avoid strain on its austerity-hit health system, is another country where coronavirus figures so far have remained impressively low. In a population of 11 million, just 2,620 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed to date.

“Like countries in central and eastern Europe, Greece had a very real sense of the fragility of its health system,” said George Pagoulatos, a political economist who heads the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “That incited the government to take urgent measures earlier than other west European governments which felt a greater sense of complacency about their systems’ ability to handle the crisis.”

Europe map

There is hope that the response will help Greece regain international prestige after years of battling negative headlines as the eurozone’s perceived black sheep. Both Greece and the Czech Republic have been included in a network of seven nations with successful coronavirus responses convened by the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, to share best practices.

In central Europe, some feel the region is not getting enough credit for its lower numbers, and chalk it down to a patronising attitude towards the “new” EU countries from “old” western Europe.

“It comes on the heels of 30 years of lecturing. Whenever you read anything on Eastern Europe, it’s something bad. Look at us, we are great, and you guys are awful. And then you have a major crisis where people die, and the lecturers are in total disarray and the lectured ones do better. Shouldn’t there be more reflection on why?” said Branko Milanović, a Serbian-American economist specialising in global income inequalities.

Stanley said that while he thought talk in some circles about a “colonial mentality” from the western half of Europe towards the rest of the continent is overblown, there is a “soft bigotry of low expectations” present in much media coverage and attitudes towards the region.

“People aren’t used to looking to central and eastern Europe for positive examples,” said a government official in one country of the region. “Partly that’s due to stereotypes, but partly, unfortunately, it’s of our own making. The way our Hungarian friends used the crisis to impose restrictions is hard to justify, and often the region gets lumped together.”

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has used the crisis to push through much-criticised legislation that allows him to rule by decree indefinitely, while Poland’s government plans to hold a controversial presidential election by postal vote this weekend.

Veronica Anghel, a Romanian political scientist currently at Stanford University, said some countries in the region “are being given more credit than they should” for their responses.

“Timing of lockdown is a blunt instrument, and a bad measure for authorities’ success,” said Anghel. She praised the response of some countries, including Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which have comparatively well-funded healthcare systems. “But Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are on the edge; any increase in cases will tip the system over,” she said.

Officials across the region are aware that the possibility of a new surge of infections is always present. For this reason, many countries are contemplating easing their lockdowns but keeping strict border controls to keep out foreign visitors or, at minimum, quarantine all new arrivals.


Shaun Walker in Budapest and Helena Smith in Athens

The GuardianTramp

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