At the height of the pandemic in the spring, Central European countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were quarantined and closed schools, restaurants, bars and shops. This allowed a significantly lower number of infections than in Western countries – so much so that Slovakia was compared to New Zealand.
But a more relaxed summer followed by the opening of schools and mixed messages from politicians has led to new increases in infections.
The Czech Republic has the highest infection rate in the EU, according to figures from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. In the summer, the numbers hovered around 200 new cases a day, with an increase in September and an explosion in October, reaching a record 8,618 cases on Friday.
The rest of Central Europe followed a similar trajectory. The number of daily cases in Slovakia has increased 10 times, and Poland has started on a similar slope, reaching a record 5,300 new infections on Saturday. Hungary went from just 9 cases at the beginning of August to 1,374 on Saturday, while Romania experienced a tripling of the summer figures, namely 3,527.
The number of cases has also increased the death rate, hospitalizations and the number of intensive care patients, and this may be a problem for a region that invests less in health and has far fewer medical staff (except the Czech Republic) than Western Europe, writes Politico .
Konstanty Szułdrzyński, a doctor at the University Hospital in Kharkov, says the evolution is not good, despite a still small number of deaths, as he estimates that the medical system can only cope with about 2,000 infections a day. Or, in the last days, the number of infections has more than doubled.
Hungary boasts of the quality of its medical school, but its doctors are leaving for higher salaries in Western Europe. Medical staff and patients complain about the conditions in hospitals and things are quite similar in other countries. Polish doctors receive higher salaries, but the country has only 237 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest in the EU, compared to Hungary (338), Slovakia (352) and Germany (431).
In terms of nurses, Romania has only 73.9 per 100,000 people, while Poland has 510 and Germany 1,106.
Romania spends the least on health as a percentage of GDP. For example, in 2017, only 5.2%, the lowest in the EU, compared to Poland (6.5%) and Hungary (6.9%). On the contrary, the Czech Republic invests the most, 7.2%, while the EU average is 9.9% of GDP.
The figures are an indicator of the ability of medical systems to cope with a long-lasting epidemic.
Existing problems with the effective treatment of other diseases are already exacerbated as hospitals focus their resources on managing COVID-19 patients.
Poland had 4,924 beds occupied by COVID-19 patients last weekend, out of 11,000 available nationwide.
Authorities in these countries are also complaining about the low test rate. In Hungary, the tests are performed on very limited criteria and the country does not use the test facilities at its disposal, as few laboratories are authorized to process tests.
An indication for insufficient testing is the large number of positive tests. Poland had a positive rate of 18% on Saturday. By contrast, the WHO recommends a rate below 5%.
János Mucsi, a Hungarian pulmonologist, explains: “We will know that we are doing enough tests when 95% of them will be negative, which is not the case now, so we are not doing enough. We can’t keep up with those who infect others – superspreaders – so many will end up getting the disease, and so hospitalizations will increase, more and more people will die, and the health system will be depleted.
In the light of these figures, governments have begun to take action.
Poland has declared almost the whole country a “yellow zone”, while some regions have been marked as “red” with high risk. Poles wear masks outside, and bars and restaurants are closed.
The Czech Republic declared a 30-day state of emergency on October 1, and a new set of restrictions came into force on Monday regarding university courses, while gyms, restaurants and cultural events operate limited.
Slovakia deploys the army to hospitals for help and considers quarantining areas with high infection rates.
The Hungarian government has announced salary increases for doctors and will keep its borders closed to foreigners.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently said in a televised interview that a joint effort will mean overcoming the epidemic without resorting to quarantine.
“Our strategy is to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations for seniors first,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.