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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Why has eastern Europe seen fewer Covid-19 cases, deaths than the west?

The primary reason for the stark difference in cases and deaths points to an early implementation of lockdown in eastern and central Europe.

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty | New Delhi | Updated: May 15, 2020 4:55:35 pm
Cross border commuters protest the current measures that are in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus at the border crossing with Germany in Folmava, Czech Republic, Friday, May 1, 2020. Commuters demand an end to mandatory coronavirus tests or to be reimbursed for the cost. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

While the UK became the new epicenter for coronavirus with the highest death toll (29,501 deaths as of May 6) after Italy (29,315 deaths), Spain (25,613), France (25,537), and Belgium (8,016) in Europe, the central and eastern part of EU seems to have suffered less, according to a report in the Guardian.

A comparison of figures from different nations across Europe may not present a holistic picture, and understandably so, given that many dynamic factors can distort the numbers. However, going by the coronavirus numbers derived from the Johns Hopkins University data makes it amply clear that there is a marked difference in positive cases and deaths between central and eastern Europe on one hand, and western Europe on the other.

In eastern Europe, Poland (14,431 cases, 716 deaths) and Romania (13,837 cases, 841 deaths) are the worst affected, even though they are quite behind western Europe. Others in the eastern part – such as Hungary (3,111 cases, 373 deaths), Bulgaria (1,758 cases, 82 deaths), Slovakia (1,421 cases, 25 deaths), Czech Republic (7,896 cases, 296 deaths), Ukraine (13,184 cases, 317 deaths), Moldova (4,363 cases, 136 deaths), Belarus (18,350 cases, 107 deaths), Estonia (1,711 cases, 55 deaths), Latvia (900 cases, 17 deaths) – are even further behind.

What could be the possible causes behind the difference in numbers between them?

It could be due to swift lockdowns enforced before deaths were reported, poor healthcare infrastructure, lower life expectancy, lower population density, lack of testing or simply luck.

Early lockdowns enforced in some countries

Around mid-February, the World Health Organisation had started to notify countries to implement early lockdown, given that China’s Wuhan applied the same strategy in January following a surge in cases.

It seems that eastern Europe, in the scheme of things, was faster to respond than UK, Spain or Italy in Europe.

Public gatherings and events in Britain and other western European nations were still taking place during the third week of March even as central and eastern European governments perhaps took a leaf out of Italy to implement swift lockdowns.

Students wearing face masks sit for the written part of the secondary school final exam in Szerb Antal Grammar School in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, May 04, 2020. In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, face masks must be worn by everyone in the school and no more than ten students can sit in one classroom. The buildings have been sanitized and the windows stay open during the exam. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP)

For instance, from the time Poland recorded its first positive case on March 4 till the first casualty on March 12, it had suspended large events and public gatherings. All essential travel was banned and schools and non-essential services shutdown by March 25.

The UK, on the other hand, recorded its first case on January 29, and subsequently, its first casualty on March 5, according to the Business Insider. It took the government 12 more days, until March 17, to ban large public gatherings. Very recently, the UK government announced that the lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic could last months.

Czech Republic, for instance, has been one of the swiftest to respond to the health crisis by imposing travel curbs and shutting down of non-essential services in March. Between its first reported case on March 12 till the first death on March 22, Czech Republic was already under lockdown for six days till March 16. It had drawn praise from across the world for its prompt action.

On Monday, Czech Transport Minister Karel Havlicek announced on Twitter that “it will be possible to use buses and trains to cross border”. The government said it would lift restrictions on international passenger road and rail transport on May 11, reported AFP.

A man wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, walks past mannequins wearing protective equipment decorated with colorful patterns in a shop window in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

Slovakia too imposed tough lockdown restrictions, banning international travel, public gatherings and by imposing 14-day quarantine for new arrivals. As of May 6, the country has witnessed only 25 deaths, and 1,421 positive cases. It also tracked telecom data, as per a report in the Financial Times, to monitor movement of people. Countries such as Japan, UK have faced tough opposition to such a move due to privacy concerns.

Interestingly, eastern European country Belarus seems to be an outlier.

Despite 18,350 cases (one of the highest in Europe) and 107 deaths, the country hasn’t yet imposed a lockdown. Furthermore, the country will be holding a military parade this week to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany, according to the Guardian, even though it has one of the highest cases in Europe. President Alexander Lukashenko has long maintained that the health implications due to coronavirus are exaggerated.

While eastern and some parts of central Europe may have witnessed low cases for now as opposed to the west, health officials warn that the peak is yet to come.

For instance, Reuters reported that Czech Republic’s health ministry has warned that since it started conducting mass tests for antibodies in April, the preliminary results have found that “immunity levels were likely lower in the two biggest cities of Prague and Brno.” It found, overall, 107 confirmed cases after testing 26,549, according to Reuters.

Romania, on its part, will be carefully examining the situation and looking at different scenarios when the lockdown is lifted after May 15, said the head of chancellery of the Prime Minister Ionel Danca, as per Romania Insider. The leader added that the situation is still risky.

At present, as UK reels from rising cases and the highest death toll in Europe, Italy and Spain seemed to have passed their peaks due to extended lockdowns.

Very few tests conducted, so fewer cases

On March 16, World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom had said that all countries should “test test test. Test every suspected case.” But it could be that many countries may not be testing enough, due to variety of issues such as policies, lack of equipment, logistic issues.

And while it may seem that eastern Europe’s coronavirus cases may be lesser for the time being, a report by the Guardian says that Hungary, for instance, performed less than a quarter number tests comparing to neighbouring Austria has”. Britain, which is now the epicenter of Europe with the highest death toll, conducted more tests per capita than most countries in eastern Europe, with a few exceptions, notably the Czech Republic which has tested widely.

Till May 4, Romania had conducted more than 199,000 tests, with a population of 19.5 million, while Poland, with a population of 38 million, carried out more than 220,000 tests.

One the other hand, one reason why countries like Germany (167,007) and Spain (219,329) have recorded so many cases is because of mass testing. For Spain, which has now reported low deaths for weeks, it was because they had resorted to the usage of one million tests.

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