CEE reels as third wave of COVID-19 breaks

CEE reels as third wave of COVID-19 breaks
Protesters have covered Old Town Square in Prague with chalked crosses for every COVID-19 victim.
By bne IntelliNews April 3, 2021

Central and Eastern Europe, already reeling from the impact of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now facing a third wave this spring that could claim many more victims, crash health systems and cause lasting economic damage.

Central Europe, the Baltic states and the Balkans now comprise one of the worst affected regions in the world. During the Easter holiday, as the UK begins to relax lockdown measures, having vaccinated more than half its population, the region is still in tight lockdown, with most countries having immunised less than a fifth of their citizens.

The pandemic has asked serious questions about the region’s health systems, its governments' capabilities and its social solidarity, and will have a big impact on its politics and economics over this year and beyond. Many poorer countries cannot afford to maintain help for unemployed people and struggling companies, creating a risk that lives will be sacrificed to preserve jobs.  

Last summer CEE was patting itself on the back for avoiding the worst of the first wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Partly through luck – the region has few huge cities and is less visited than Western and Southern Europe – and partly by the quick imposition of lockdowns, the region suffered fewer infections than the rest of the continent. Like elsewhere, governments also abandoned budget shibboleths and stepped in to help workers and businesses survive.

But many governments then relaxed lockdown restrictions over the summer, and this appears to have helped spread the second wave of the coronavirus from October, especially in its new highly infectious "British" variant.  

After belatedly tightening restrictions in the autumn, then relaxing them for Christmas, most countries had to tighten them again in March to face a third wave of the pandemic, at a time when governments are under huge pressure to relax the restrictions as people’s patience wears thin and businesses cry for help.

Hungary has suffered 26.19 deaths per million people in the last seven days (as of April 1), according to the World in Data, with Bosnia at 23.12, Bulgaria at 16.47 and Czechia at 15.15 – among the worst figures in the world.

This time around, certain features of CEE’s social and economic structure are being blamed for the region’s high infection rate, particularly its higher proportion of multi-generation households and the large share of jobs in big factories compared to Western Europe.

Another cause, however, is that the prolonged pandemic has severely tested state structures and found them wanting.

Health systems had often long been underfunded and short of staff, with many doctors and nurses having emigrated for better paid jobs in Western Europe. Hospitals have had to make tough decisions on whether to cancel other operations to make space for COVID-19 patients.

No government has set up an effective test and trace system, with Poland having failed to test returning migrants from Western Europe at all. Many are now struggling to roll out vaccinations, even when they have enough vaccine doses to do so. Poland and Hungary have both recently had to halt vaccination programmes because of database problems. The failure to digitalise state systems has played a part here, but even digital star Estonia has not passed this test.

Only CEE six countries have managed to immunise their populations faster than the EU average of 16.5% (as of April 1), and the two stars are the semi-authoritarian regimes of Serbia (35.2%) and Hungary (29.2%), which turned to Russia and China for vaccines that are not approved by the European Medicines Agency.

Russia itself is lagging behind in terms of vaccinations but is one of the few countries in the region where infections are falling rapidly (from a high base). As production of vaccines is ramped up, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now able to boast that the country should achieve herd immunity by the end of August.

Meanwhile, some authoritarian governments in Central Asia continue to maintain that they don’t even have a pandemic problem.

Rolling out vaccines as deliveries ramp up will be the next test. “The expectedly greater deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks/months – particularly in EU member states – should accelerate the immunisation progress across the region; at the same time, this will test the governments' preparation for a larger-scale rollout,” Teneo said in a recent note.

Like in Western Europe, governments have also been inconsistent in imposing and enforcing lockdowns, and have often reacted late to soaring infection rates. Communication has been contradictory, giving divergent messages to a confused public. Poland, for example, allowed skiing holidays over Christmas, and still lets churches continue to operate and people to move around the country.  

Often this reflects fears that the population will not abide by tough restrictions, a valid point given the weak social solidarity and trust in governments across the region. The CEE region is vulnerable to conspiracy theories – often helped by Russian disinformation – and rumours over the virus and the Western vaccines have made many people doubt the seriousness of the pandemic. There have also been significant demonstrations against the lockdown in Romania and Serbia.

Sometimes the inconsistent government policy has reflected crude political calculation: Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis waited until after the October 2-3 local elections to re-impose a lockdown, whilst Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is accused of waiting until after this weekend’s general election before imposing new restrictions.

Whereas in the first wave, support for incumbent governments often rose as countries pulled together, now governments across the region are suffering in opinion polls from their perceived incompetence. 

This mood, together with the economic aftershocks and likely budget tightening, should benefit populist challengers. However, ironically because populist parties are in charge across much of Central and Eastern Europe, this may not have the same effect here. In Slovakia, populist premier Igor Matovic even had to step down because of a row over the government's handling of the pandemic, particularly his decision to procure the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Notwithstanding this, many governments – and not just the populist ones – are using Brussels as a scapegoat for their failures, even when the real cause is their own incompetence or the failure of EU countries to reach agreement.

The failures of the European Commission’s PPE and vaccination procurement programmes, the squabbling over border closures, as well as the infighting over the sharing out of the vaccines, has been a gift to Eurosceptic parties in the region, as well as rival powers such as Russia and China.

Both Moscow and Beijing have used their success in developing vaccines to burnish their images, and have won new friends by delivering them to countries in the Balkans that have so far received few doses from Brussels. Hungary and Serbia, as leaders in immunisations, have downplayed the help they received from Brussels, and applauded their shipments from Moscow and Beijing.

“I’m afraid that in the first wave, if populists were the biggest losers, they can turn out to be one of the winners in the second phase,” political scientist Ivan Krastev predicted at the Aspen Central Europe conference in November.

Below, bne IntelliNews reporters examine the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic in their countries:

CENTRAL EUROPE

Central Europe has been one of the world’s worst-hit regions, with Czechia suffering 2,480 deaths per million people, Hungary 2,173, Slovakia 1,793 and Poland 1,400, as of April 1. While infections in Czechia and Slovakia are now falling, cases Poland and Hungary are still on a steeply rising trajectory.

Poland registered 28,073 new coronavirus cases as of April 3, marking a weekly drop of 11.6%, which might be a sign of the third wave easing. But the situation is far from being under control, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said.
 
The number of COVID-19 deaths came in at 571 on April 3, a weekly jump of 27%, an unwelcome but expected scenario, as the rise in fatal cases typically lags the peak in new cases.
 
Poland has been in a fairly tight lockdown since March 27, although the government has not imposed any limits on travel and has kept churches open in the run-up to Easter. Therefore the government can only resort to appealing to reason.
 
“What is going to happen in the coming weeks depends on how safely we will spend Easter,” Niedzielski tweeted on April 3.
 
Tired of intermittent lockdowns, many Poles flout restrictions, media report almost on a daily basis. People with no masks or masks not covering the nose are a common sight on public transport or in shops. 
 
The government, however, has been trying to walk the fine line between an all-out lockdown and keeping the economy afloat. So far, thanks to generous loosening of fiscal policy – with interest rates at just 0.1% and the fiscal package equivalent to some 13% of GDP – Poland has avoided a really deep recession and a jump in the unemployment rate.
 
Poland’s GDP only contracted 2.7% last year, while the unemployment rate increased only by 1pp year on year to 6.5% in February, latest data show. 
 
A year after its first positive case, Czechia has recorded one of the highest figures for COVID-19 infections and deaths per capita in the world. The number of deaths amounted to 26,586 at the end of March. More than 7,300 people are hospitalised in overloaded hospitals. 

On March 1, due to the highly contagious coronavirus variants spreading throughout Czechia since the beginning of the year, the government tightened its lockdown measures, including the obligation to wear respirators or surgery masks both outdoors and indoors, limiting movement of citizens to only their residential districts and placing a curfew from 9pm until 5am. 

The government has prolonged the state of emergency and all restrictions until after Easter, until April 11, as infections and death rates are still at high levels. 

All schools and universities have been closed fully for a month, with online distance learning in place instead. Only shops with essential goods remain open. At the beginning of March, the government also ordered mandatory blanket testing of employees in all private and public companies. 

As of Wednesday, March 31, 7,208 positive new cases of coronavirus were confirmed, almost 5,000 fewer than for the previous Wednesday. For the first time since the beginning of February, Wednesday´s increase stood below 10,000. 

In mid-March the Slovak government extended the state of emergency by another 40 days in reaction to the growing number of new positive cases of coronavirus. It has also prohibited travelling abroad for recreational purposes, while foreign travel has been allowed only for work and non-leisure reasons. 

As of March 30, the country recorded more than 3,000 new positive cases. The death rate stood at 9,719. The country has posted one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths at 1.136 per 100,000 citizens. 

Despite the numbers in Slovakia having started to improve, with most districts no longer at top-level alert, the measures will remain in place during Easter. One reason is the fear that the situation at Christmas may repeat.

Hungary has suffered a very high infection and death rate, but has the best record on immunisations in the EU, giving hope that the country can head off the surge in infections before it gets out of control. The government is now contemplating easing the restrictions, including opening schools, from mid-April.

Hungary is facing "the most severe days" of the third wave with record caseloads and a high number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients, Hungary’s leading epidemiologist Janos Szlavik has said. Experts have warned people to observe the regulations during the Easter holiday.

Hungary reported a record 272 daily deaths on March 28, bringing the total death count to close to 20,000. Over the last seven days, Hungary had the highest mortality rate per 1mn inhabitants globally. There are close to 12,000 in hospitals due to COVID-19. 

On a positive note, the pace of vaccination is advancing rapidly. More than 1.9mn people received their first jab and 685,000 have been fully vaccinated. Hungary has now overtaken Malta as the country with the highest rate of inoculation. This rate could further improve as Hungary granted licenses for use to the Chinese CanSino coronavirus vaccine and CoviShield, AstraZeneca’s vaccine produced in India.

In the Baltic states, Estonia has been the worst affected in terms of infections, though it has the best vaccination rate, while Lithuania has had the worst death rate. Lithuania, which has a 2.8 million population, has reported 220,000 COVID-19 cases since the outbreak of the pandemic, with 3,610 dying as of April 5. Lithuania has inoculated 388,518 people with the first vaccine shot.

Latvia, with a population of around 1.9 million, has had 104,105 COVID-19 cases, with 1,931 deaths. A total of 146,752 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the country. 

When it comes to Estonia, the smallest Baltic state with ca 1.35 million inhabitants, 109 000 cases of the coronavirus have been reported since the beginning of the outbreak last spring, including 941 deaths. Vaccinations for COVID-19 have been performed on 227,246 people in the country.

EASTERN EUROPE

Russia is one of the few places in Europe where infection rates are falling rapidly, and the country is likely to reach “herd immunity by the end of August", according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Infection rates in Russia were very high and more than 100,000 people have died, in the top seven highest death tolls (according to World Health Organisation figures) in the world. But the high infection rates then are paying a dividend now as few people need to be vaccinated; Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said that half of the capital’s population has been infected with the virus.

Russia also rapidly developed a highly effective vaccine and started mass inoculations in December. Initially hampered by production bottlenecks, the production capacity has soared in the last months and the RDIF that is behind producing the vaccine predicts Russia will manufacture 2.4bn doses this year.

Russia has registered a total of three coronavirus vaccines, although currently only Sputnik V is certified for mass distribution. Setting up production of the other two is currently underway and they are anticipated to go on general release in the coming months.

Despite the slating of Sputnik V following its fast-track registration last year, the tone of reporting on the vaccine has warmed considerably in recent months as it proves to be extremely effective, easier to transport than most of its rivals, and cheaper. With the shortage of supply in Europe German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron held a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the possible production and supply of the Russian vaccine on March 31, which looks highly likely to go ahead.

While the Russians remain unwilling to take their own vaccine, with some 40% saying they will not be inoculated, the popularity of Sputnik V has surged in Germany, where the number saying they would take it if it were available is up to 57% from 45% in February, according to a recent poll. In East Germany the number is even higher, with 69% willing, up from 55% before.

A third wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic is sweeping Ukraine, which saw as many as 18,132 coronavirus cases confirmed last week – twice the level of the peak in the first wave – and the bulk of the country is now in the “red zone,” Health Minister Maxim Stepanov wrote on Facebook on March 26, as cited by Tass.

Ukraine is the only one of the former Soviet Union (FSU) nations that doesn't have access to the Russian vaccines, after it banned Sputnik V in February. As a result it has struggled to source adequate supplies from other countries, but has signed deals to receive vaccines from both China and India. However, many Ukrainians have refused to take the Indian vaccine, over worries about the safety of Indian pharmaceutical technology. As a result, the roll-out of the inoculation campaign is going very slowly and it is well behind its peers in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The total number of Belarus’ coronavirus (COVID-19) cases has exceeded 320,000, with the country counting as many as 995 more new coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the health ministry reported on March 29. The death toll is 2,237, including a number of patients with chronic diseases since the epidemic outbreak, it said, adding that 10 more deaths were reported during the past day.  

However, Belarus has launched its mass immunisation programme thanks to a gift of 100,000 vaccine doses from China and more from Russia, which has also built a factory to produce Sputnik V, the first doses of which rolled off the conveyer belt in the last week of March.

SOUTHEAST EUROPE

Southeast Europe is in the midst of a third wave of the virus with more than 5,000 new cases being reported daily each in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. Hospitals are under pressure, and new restrictions including lockdowns and curfews in some countries have been imposed.

This has been politically challenging, and sparked anti-lockdown protests in several countries, most recently Romania. More than 1,000 people protested in Romanian cities on March 29, with the demonstrations several of which ended in clashes with police organised by the far-right AUR Party. Serbia has tightened restrictions and announced a weekend lockdown in mid-March, but held off from a longer-term lockdown, as officials are mindful of the violent protests that shook the country last summer, while Bulgaria abruptly eased restrictions ahead of the April 4 general election.

The region’s poorest country Moldova announced a state of emergency on March 31, though it lacks the funds to support the economy through a protracted lockdown. President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity argued that the move was politically motivated and intended to block early elections. Acting Prime Minister Aureliu Ciocoi, meanwhile, said the state of emergency was necessary and warned that there are two patients for each bed in Moldova's COVID-19 hospitals.

After months of delays, all of the Western Balkans countries have embarked on COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

Kosovo became the last country in Europe to start vaccinations of its population after receiving the first 24,000 out of 100,800 AstraZeneca vaccines via the COVAX programme on March 28. Prime Minister Albin Kurti was the first person to get vaccinated to reassure the population that the vaccines are safe.

Albania also started mass vaccination of its population against COVID-19 on March 28. The campaign started in the capital Tirana, where two large tents have been set up in the central Skanderbeg Square to serve as a mass vaccination point.

The first vaccines via the COVAX scheme also arrived in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia in the last few days, finally allowing them to start large-scale vaccination. Romania too announced it has supplies of 3.1mn vaccines.

Serbia is one of the most advanced countries in Europe in terms of its vaccination programme, and has helped out several of its neighbours.

Over the last weekend, more than 22,000 foreigners were vaccinated in Serbia in just three days March 25, 27 and 28 using vaccines that would otherwise have expired without being used. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic talked of the “picture of solidarity” sent from Serbia to the region by vaccinating citizens of other countries, and said that all those who applied will be invited to come for their second vaccines.

Serbia is now planning to set up production of both the Russian and the Chinese vaccines, with manufacture of the Sputnik V vaccine to start as soon as May at the Torlak Institute of Virology, Vaccines and Sera. Serbia will become the first country in Southern Europe to produce Sputnik V, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) announced earlier this month.

EURASIA

In Eurasia, the direst situation is in Turkey, where the coronavirus pandemic has re-erupted in the past month and the country’s tourism sector faces losing tens of billions of summer dollars for the second year running. Turkey’s health ministry on March 31 said it had officially recorded 39,302 new coronavirus cases in the space of 24 hours that’s the highest daily level registered by the country since the start of its COVID-19 outbreak a year ago.

The surge has come since the government at the start of March eased measures to curb the pandemic, prematurely in the eyes of critics. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week announced a tightening of measures, including the return of full nationwide weekend lockdowns for the upcoming holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

Turkey, already battling a home-grown economic crisis, typically generates around 11% of its $750bn economic output from tourism. Such a target for the Middle East’s largest economy this year is looking increasingly unrealistic. Out of the country’s 81 provinces, 58 are now in the "red" or "very high-risk" virus zone, including the capital Ankara and economic hub Istanbul.

Teneo Intelligence commented: “The government's handling of the public health crisis is facing mounting criticism from both health experts and the public. Meanwhile, the vaccination roll-out continues to be marred by a lack of transparency regarding the supply of vaccine doses and its timeline and over-dependence on a single supplier [China].”

Overall, Turkey remains largely dependent on China's Sinovac vaccine. Reuters reported on March 26 that China was meant to deliver 50mn doses of the Sinovac vaccine to Turkey by the end of February, and the rest by the end of April. However, it said, shipments had been beset by delays and China was still 32mn doses short of meeting the February target.

Iran, meanwhile, looks set to be engulfed by what would be its fourth coronavirus wave. Anxieties that its week-long Nowruz celebrations of the Persian new year, which took place last week to bring in the Persian year of 1400, would cause another surge of coronavirus cases appear to have been well-founded. Its daily infection count this week moved back into five figures for the first time since December.

In terms of its coronavirus vaccination programme, Iran has vaccinated roughly 80% of its medical staff dealing with COVID-19. The country started inoculating citizens in February using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, but progress is slow. If scheduled deliveries of other vaccines take place in coming weeks, including through the COVAX world programme, it should pick up. A domestically developed vaccine is expected to become available in May.

In Central Asia, Kazakhstan this week saw the first patients admitted to an Almaty sports stadium converted into a COVID-19 field hospital. The country tightened quarantine measures in March amid growing infection rates. Multiple regions and highly populated cities of Kazakhstan entered the “red zone” for infection prevalence as of March 30. Kazakhstan began its vaccination campaign last month by relying on Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, but the roll-out has been so slow that the president on April 1 threatened to fire the government if faster progress is not delivered soon. So far, around 130,000 people have had one shot. The country plans to introduce a domestically produced vaccine.

Uzbekistan was due to start its mass coronavirus vaccination programme on April 1 with the Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccine acquired via COVAX. Officials said the number of daily infections had grown substantially in recent days, though the daily infection tally is in the low hundreds. There is considerable scepticism among critics as to Uzbekistan’s commitment to tracking and logging the spread of its outbreak.

Turkmenistan, where health and happiness are central to the personality cult of dictator Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, continues to claim there have been no coronavirus cases in the country. Nevertheless, a vaccination campaign relying on the Vero Cell vaccine produced by China National Biotec Group, a subsidiary of Sinopharm, has started.

Tajikistan has reported almost zero daily COVID-19 infections in recent months. Many foreign observers in the impoverished country have described the official picture as almost certainly being a long way from the reality.

Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, has lately tightened hygiene controls in anticipation of growing infection rates. As with the other ‘minor Stans’, Kyrgyzstan’s coronavirus data collection and transparency might not withstand any thorough scrutiny.

Mongolia, after in the past few weeks recording its highest daily coronavirus infection rates yet, averaging 300 cases per day, has announced that it will reinstate strict lockdown measures from April 3. On February 22, Mongolia administered its first coronavirus vaccine shots. Since then 279,096 people have received a vaccine dose. Various vaccines have been used.

In the South Caucasus, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have in the past several weeks seen steep third-wave rises in their coronavirus infection numbers. The World Bank noted Azerbaijan was able to get its vaccination programme off to an early start, though its limitations are still entirely clear, while Armenia this week received a first batch of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, amounting to 24,000 doses, under the COVAX facility. So far, it has only managed a very limited vaccination drive using a small supply of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

Georgia is presently deciding whether to return to tight measures to address a growing spike in its coronavirus cases. Georgia by March 26 had received 29,500 Pfizer vaccine doses and 43,200 AstraZeneca shots, while it had ordered 100,000 Sinovac doses from China. Reluctance to get vaccinated is seen as particularly high among Georgians.

 

 

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