20,000 white crosses: Marking Covid’s toll in Central and Eastern Europe

20,000 white crosses: Marking Covid’s toll in Central and Eastern Europe

PRAGUE – More than 20,000 white crosses have appeared painted on the cobblestones of a medieval square in central Prague, each representing a victim of Covid-19 – an effort highlighting the ravages of a pandemic that has in recent weeks battered Eastern and Central Europe.

Like many countries in the region, the Czech Republic weathered the first wave of the coronavirus early last year far better than Italy and many other nations in Western Europe. But it has since suffered one of the world’s highest Covid death rates and has struggled over the past month to contain a new wave of infections.

Hungary – whose far-right populist leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, last year boasted of his government’s response to the pandemic – is also experiencing record death rates, with over 4,000 fatalities this past month.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and other countries in the region lifted pandemic restrictions last summer after successful initial efforts to contain the virus. But with cases and deaths climbing in recent weeks, they are now scrambling to reverse the damage.

Hungary and Slovakia, both members of the European Union, are seeking help in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, even though it has not yet been approved by the bloc’s regulators. Hungary has also started using a Chinese-made vaccine that has not been approved in the European Union. Serbia, which is not a member of the bloc, has purchased millions of vaccine doses from Russia and China, as well as from Western companies.

A big cause of the spiking infection rates is a more contagious virus variant that was first identified in Britain in December and has since spread rapidly in the Czech Republic, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe.

Poland on Saturday ordered the closing of hotels and shops, other than food stores, until further notice after a surge in infections, at least 60% of which are the variant first detected in Britain.

Deeply polarized politics across the region have hampered countries’ responses to the pandemic, with parties that are out of power – whether pro-Western liberals or right-wing populists – or junior partners in shaky coalitions routinely attacking whatever their rivals in government do.

Anti-government protesters in Serbia have staged small demonstrations over the weekend closing of restaurants and bars, and public health experts in Hungary have complained about the Orban government’s inconsistent response to the pandemic.

In Slovakia, a decision to import vaccines from Russia pushed a coalition government to the brink of collapse early this month after a rift among lawmakers over the move. Slovakia’s per capita coronavirus death rate is twice that of France and just behind that of the Czech Republic.

The painted crosses that appeared Monday in Old Town Square in Prague, the Czech capital, were the work of A Million Moments for Democracy, a group of activists who oppose Prime Minister Andrej Babis and have organized large street protests against him. The crosses, numbering more than 20,000, represented the nearly 25,000 people who have died from the virus in the country – a huge number in a nation with a population of about 10 million.

The Czech Republic, like Slovakia, is bitterly split over Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Although published data indicates that it has an efficacy rate of more than 90%, critics of Moscow in Europe see it as a “tool of hybrid war” that is being deployed to divide the West.

The Czech president, Milos Zeman, long known for pro-Kremlin views, said last month that he had asked President Vladimir Putin of Russia to arrange deliveries of Sputnik to his country. When the Czech health ministry balked at the idea, Zeman demanded, without success, that the minister be fired.

Vaccines, however, offer no quick escape from the pandemic. Until a large number of residents are inoculated, vaccines can give people a false sense of security, prompting them to stop wearing masks and taking other precautions. Serbia, Europe’s best vaccinator after Britain, has seen infection rates spike sharply in recent weeks, prompting authorities to impose new partial lockdowns.

Reliant on the EU’s stumbling efforts to order and distribute vaccines, the Czech government has sought to get its infection and death rate down by imposing some of Europe’s toughest restrictions.

After a three-week lockdown with shops and schools closed, obligatory testing of employees by companies and restrictions on movement, the number of Covid-19 patients entering hospital has started to drop. That has slowly eased the burden on hospitals that were last month at the limit of their capacity, and Czech hospitals now report that 12% of beds in their intensive care unit are unoccupied.

Petr Smejkal, the chief epidemiologist at Prague’s Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, blamed what he described as a series of misjudgments by the authorities for his country’s bleak record.

“Firstly, we missed the beginning of the second wave and failed to contain the surge of infections at the end of the summer,” he said. “Secondly, we relaxed restrictions before Christmas, and thirdly, we insufficiently tracked the British mutation at the beginning of January.”

“Sadly, the government did not listen to its experts,” he added.

The Hungarian government had been particularly resistant to the advice of experts who called for greater vigilance in response to the crisis. It has instead sought public opinion on the issue of reopening via an online questionnaire.

A report by Politico this month found that Hungary, despite having Russian, Chinese and Western vaccines, had one of the lowest coronavirus inoculation rates in the European Union.

Some municipalities have urged Hungary’s government to allow them to set up vaccination points to expedite the process but have been rebuffed. Critics say Orban’s government wants all of the praise for getting vaccines to people, even if that means slower inoculations in towns and cities – some of which, like Budapest, the capital, are controlled by the opposition.

“There is utter chaos in the administering of shots and providing documentation,” said Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karacsony, an opposition politician widely seen as a potential candidate for prime minister in 2022.

Orban’s opponents, long unable to form a united front against him, recently agreed to mount a collective challenge to his party in next year’s national elections. Critics have taken issue with the government’s obscure process of securing vaccines and medical equipment.

“Obviously, it would be much more effective to involve the municipalities” in the vaccine rollout, Karacsony said. “But they won’t do it, because they don’t want the opposition to capitalize on it.” [The New York Times]

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