Poland’s coronavirus case toll races past 600 as state of epidemic kicks in

Poland’s coronavirus case toll races past 600 as state of epidemic kicks in
Announcement about methods of reducing risk of coronavirus infection on the doors of Wloclawek's City Hall.
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw March 23, 2020

Poland recorded 627 cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) early in the evening of March 22, with seven fatal cases, the health ministry said in an update. 

The number of cases grew by 98 since the preceding day, the second fastest growth – after March 21 – since the first coronavirus case was recorded in Poland earlier this month.

Sunday marked the end of the first full week of partial lockdown imposed by the Law and Justice (PiS) government in an effort to keep the epidemic at levels manageable by the country’s underfunded and understaffed healthcare system.

The growth in the number of cases remains modest although experts and the opposition are attacking PiS for that being an effect of too few tests being administered. PiS responds it is testing targeted suspect cases, in line with the guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Poland imposed a state of epidemic countrywide of March 21, giving the government tools of greater control over how people move. Police have also stepped up checks on people under compulsory quarantine with fines for ignoring quarantine rules going up to PLN30,000 (€6,570). Self-isolation is critical to limiting the spread of the coronavirus, epidemic experts say.

As it battles the epidemic, Poland is also in the midst of a heated political fight over the presidential election, due to take place on May 10. The incumbent President Andrzej Duda and his PiS camp are pushing for the vote to take place as scheduled. The opposition candidates, who have all limited their campaign to social media, are calling for a postponement.

PiS is having none of that. “I am convinced that at the moment there are no reasons to introduce a state of emergency. And only then can the election be postponed,” PiS’ chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski told RMF FM radio on March 21.

The opposition argues that a spreading epidemic that enforced a lockdown on retail, public gatherings, and has been testing the healthcare system to its limits is a de facto state of emergency. Calling it officially would require postponing the election by 90 days after the emergency ends, Poland’s constitution states.

The opposition says holding an election amidst the likely still raging epidemic would cripple democratic principles of free participation, let alone fairness, in a situation in which opposition candidates cannot campaign. Duda, meanwhile, has hardly ceased appearing in public, justifying it as his duty as head of state.

Meanwhile, a poll by IBSP was the first to show Duda above the 50% support mark. If the president delivers the result on May 10, that would mean his victory directly in the first round, without the need for a run-off after two weeks. 

The PiS government will also need to confront a post-pandemic reality of an economic crisis. Poland’s GDP growth is expected to ease to below 2% in 2020 in the best scenarios. Some analysts expect zero growth or recession, however.

PiS has rolled out a PLN212bn (€46.7bn) stimulus and support package for Poland’s economy, envisaging cheaper credit, a quantitative easing programme, and an – apparently rather limited – scheme to support companies and employees.