20,000 White Crosses: Covid’s Toll brand in Central and Eastern Europe

PRAGUE – More than 20,000 white crosses appear painted on the cobblestones of a medieval square in the center of Prague, each representing a victim of Covid-19 – an attempt to highlight the devastation of a pandemic that over the past few weeks has plagued Eastern and Central Europe.

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

Hungary – whose far-right populist leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, boasted last year about his government’s response to the pandemic – is also experiencing record deaths, with more than 4,000 deaths in the past month.

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

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

A major cause of the rising 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 hotels and shops, other than grocery stores, to close until further notice following a surge in infections, at least 60 per cent of which is the variant first detected in Britain.

Deeply polarized politics across the region have hampered countries’ responses to the pandemic, with parties outside power – whether pro-Western liberal or right-wing populist – or junior partners in shaky coalitions regularly attacking their government rivals .

Anti-government protesters in Serbia staged small demonstrations over the weekend with the closure of restaurants and pubs, and public health experts in Hungary 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 earlier this month following a dispute between lawmakers. Slovakia’s per capita coronavirus mortality rate is twice that of France and just behind that of the Czech Republic.

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

The Czech Republic, like Slovakia, is bitterly divided over the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Although published data indicate that it has an efficiency rate of more than 90 percent, critics of Moscow in Europe see it as a ‘tool for hybrid warfare’ used to divide the West.

Czech President Milos Zeman, long known for his pro-Kremlin views, said last month that he had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to arrange deliveries of Putin to his country. When the Czech Ministry of Health rejected the idea, Mr. Zeman demanded that he resign without success.

Vaccinations, however, offer no quick escape from the pandemic. Until a large number of residents are vaccinated, vaccines can give people a false sense of security, which should stop them from wearing masks and taking other precautions. Serbia, the best vaccination in Europe after Britain, has seen its infection rates rise sharply in recent weeks, prompting authorities to draw up new partial closures.

The Czech government, depending on the European Union’s obstacles to ordering and distributing vaccines, has sought to reduce its infection and death rates by imposing some of Europe’s strictest restrictions.

After a three-week lockdown with shops and schools, mandatory testing of employees by staff and restrictions on movement, the number of Covid-10 patients entering the hospital began to decline. This has slowly eased the burden on hospitals that were at the limited capacity last month, and Czech hospitals now report that 12 percent of the beds in their intensive care unit are unoccupied.

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

“First, we missed the start of the second wave and did not control the infection at the end of the summer,” he said. “Secondly, we relaxed restrictions before Christmas, and thirdly, we did not adequately detect the British mutation at the beginning of January.”

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

The Hungarian government was particularly resistant to the advice of experts who called for more vigilance in response to the crisis. Instead, it asked for public opinion on the issue of reopening via an online questionnaire.

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

Some municipalities have urged the Hungarian government to allow them to set up vaccination points to speed up the process, but have been turned down. Critics say the government of Mr. Orban wants all the praise for vaccinating people, even if it means slower vaccinations in cities – some of which, like Budapest, the capital, are controlled by the opposition.

“There is total chaos in the firing of shots and the provision of documentation,” said Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, an opposition politician widely regarded as a potential prime ministerial candidate in 2022.

The opponents of mr. Orban, who has long been unable to form a united front against him, recently agreed to present a collective challenge to his party during next year’s national election. Critics have objected to the government’s obscure process to secure vaccines and medical equipment.

“It is clear that it will be much more effective to involve the municipalities” in the vaccination of vaccines, said Mr. Karacsony said. “But they will not do it because they do not want the opposition to profit from it.”

Hana de Goeij reported from Prague, and Benjamin Novak from Budapest. Andrew Higgins contributed contribution from Warsaw.

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