Central Europe engulfed by Covid cases after dodging first wave

Czech Republic tops EU infection rates as neighbouring nations also set daily case records

Two ladies cross the road in Prague, Czech Republic wearing face masks
Czech Republic tops EU infection rates as neighbouring nations also set daily case records
(Image credit: Michael Cizek/AFP via Getty Images)

As the first wave of coronavirus swept across Europe earlier this year, one region of the continent remained relatively untouched by the global pandemic.

Central Europe spends less on healthcare than its western neighbours yet reported significantly lower infections rates after clamping down “hard and fast” to prevent outbreaks, says Politico. Slovakia was even cited alongside New Zealand as a nation setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.

But now, as a second wave threatens Europe, the continent’s central countries are seeing “a huge surge in infections” that threatens “to overwhelm the medical systems of many of the EU’s poorer member countries”, the news site reports.

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Czech the numbers

Another country previously hailed as a success story in the battle against Covid, the Czech Republic now has the highest rate of infections in the EU, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Infection rates among the nation’s 10.9 million-strong population lingered at around 200 new cases a day through the summer, but began rising in September and hit a record high of 8,618 cases on Friday.

The Czech Republic has now “surpassed a previous worst-case scenario advanced by the health minister, Roman Prymula, an epidemiologist who was appointed last month with a brief to combat soaring infection rates”, The Guardian reports.

Prymula “said when he took office that without tougher measures, numbers could reach between 6,000 and 8,000 a day, which would would be beyond the health system’s capacity to cope”, the newspaper adds.

Neighbouring countries are also reporting sudden rises in Covid cases.

ECDC figures show that the number of daily new cases in Slovakia is now ten times higher than in the summer, while Poland recorded a national record of 5,300 new cases on Saturday. Hungary has gone from only nine cases at the start of August to 1,374 on Saturday, while Romania’s average daily tally has tripled from the summer to 3,517 on Friday.

Death rates are also rising, and hospitalisations and demand for respirators are increasing significantly too - creating major problems in a region where, with the exception of the Czech Republic, “healthcare spending, and the number of doctors and nurses, is well below levels in Western Europe”, Politico reports.

Extreme measures

When the coronavirus pandemic first began, back in early spring, many central European countries locked down quickly and shut their borders to avoid the spread of the virus.

The Czech authorities imposed a nationwide lockdown on 15 March, when the nation had reported just 293 cases, and made mask-wearing in public mandatory three days later.

This swift response was praised by commentators worldwide including University of Glasgow academics Jan Culik, a senior lecturer in Czech studies, and Mirna Solic, a lecturer in modern languages and cultures.

In an article on The Conversation in June, the pair noted that while the New Zealand authorities had been lauded for their quick intervention, testing was also “freely available from the very beginning, international travel suspended, and travellers requested to self-isolate for 14 days” in the Czech Republic and other Central European countries.

However, as in the UK, the reopening of schools and slow relaxation of restrictions has triggered an upsurge in infections across the central nations.

“This isn’t looking good," Konstanty Szuldrzynski, a senior doctor at the University Hospital in the Polish city of Krakow, told Politico. “We still have relatively low death rates, but we do have a problem.

“If this starts to grow, we have no tool to handle this.”

Return to lockdown

As over-stretched medical services struggle to cope, many nations in the region are considering the reintroduction of strict measures to curb the spread.

On Sunday, as Boris Johnson prepared to outline his new plan for the UK, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis introduced “orders to shut pubs at 8pm, limits on restaurant service to four patrons per table, and closing gyms, swimming pools and zoos”, The Guardian reports.

And in Hungary, “authorities have indicated over the past days that they are working to boost testing capacity”, although “it remains unclear how many extra tests will be made available”, adds Politico.

The biggest strain for the central EU nations is a shortage of medical staff. Poland has only 237 doctors per 100,000 people, the lowest level in the EU, while Hungary has 338 and Slovakia has 352, according to Eurostat.

By contrast, Germany has 431, while Italy - which was battered by its first Covid-19 wave - has 398.

“Our system was on the edge of effectiveness even before the pandemic,” Polish medic Szuldrzynski told Politico. “If we devote all of our resources and time to coronavirus, an even bigger problem is that the system will stop curing all the other people.”

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.