Analysis: The politics of COVID-19 second wave

Health minister Łukasz Szumowski has returned from his holiday to face growing concern over the rise in the number of COVID-19 infections in Poland and beyond. The hopes of politicians of having a quiet August after the stormy first half of the year during which they had to cope with the pandemic, the economic consequences thereof, and a presidential election look to be history.

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Throughout Europe there is growing alarm at the way the number of cases of COVID-19 infections is growing. Some countries are already bringing back restrictions that had been lifted. Poland has, as yet, not done so despite the fact that this week saw numbers of daily infections reach the highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

History of the first wave

It is important to grasp the real scale of the matter. The course of the pandemic in Poland has so far been rather different than in many European states. It avoided a sharp rise in the numbers of infected. After reaching levels of 300-500 per day this plateaued, allowing the health service to cope with the situation without undue stress.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the authorities acted quickly closing the borders and enforcing a strict social distancing regime. Wearing of face masks was for some time compulsory in all public spaces, closed and open.

The country never toyed with the idea of attempting to build up ‘herd immunity’ as was the case in Sweden. There was criticism of insufficient number of tests being carried out, but in reality, Poland was not all that short of the EU average for the number of tests and the ratio of those tested and found to be infected was consistently below those in Western Europe.

Poland began to unfreeze the economy relatively early. From May onwards restrictions began to be relaxed and a large scale programme of aid for companies and individuals put in place. As a result, the growth in unemployment has not been as sharp as in Western Europe and the recession looks to be shallower than in most of the EU.

Once the pandemic seemed to be under control the country was even able to hold its presidential election with a mass turnout and almost 99% of those voting do so in polling stations. The process was well organised respecting all sanitary restrictions and there was no spike in the number of cases as a result of the two rounds of voting.

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The virus rides again in the holiday season

It looks as if the holiday season has brought unwelcome change to the picture. Social distancing has largely been forgotten, though face masks are still prevalent in shops and public transport. Thousands have gone for their holidays to the Baltic coast, the Mazurian lakes or the mountains in the south and international flights have been restored. The numbers of those infected have begun to rise, Poland looks to have been found with its pants down at the seaside as the second wave approaches.

This week saw numbers of daily infections go beyond 600 for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The number of active cases which had been stable at just over 8,000 has now risen to nearly 10,000. However, there has as yet been no spike in fatalities or the numbers of those critically ill. The ratio of fatalities to the total infected (below 4 percent) is still below the international average, as is the number infected compared to the number actually tested for the presence of the virus (2 percent). Poland’s total number of those infected since the start of the pandemic in March (just over 45,000) is unspectacular for a country of Poland’s size with over ¾ of these cases having been resolved.

The health minister Łukasz Szumowski patiently explains that most of the rise in the number of infections is attributed to places of work in Silesia and a couple of other provinces. This is the second time that a spike in the numbers of infected has come in the Polish coal mines. Earlier in May and June infections in a number of mines led to a temporary halt in mining in the industry.

Some argue that this is not really a ‘second wave’, but the result of the fact that suppression of the first wave meant that insufficient herd immunity had been built up and the moment restrictions were lifted the virus reared its head again. In Poland, as elsewhere, the government is reluctant to lock down again in fear of the economic consequences. There is also less social fear of the virus as people have learned to take precautions and have seen the rate of fatalities contained. The virus is most dangerous for the old and those in poor health, it is hard to make the young worry about it and contain their natural desire to socialise and travel.

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Government concerned about the autumn

The ministry of health seems to be less concerned about this week’s spike in the number of cases than about the potential for a new wave of the pandemic being conflated with a wave of the seasonal flu in the autumn. This, they fear, will make it hard to keep up with the testing for the virus and could place strains on the health service if the number of COVID-19 infections spirals.

The present upturn may give the authorities the opportunity to test the effectiveness of restrictions targeted on very specific localities in which spikes of the number of cases are concentrated. The health minister on Friday said that in only 28 of Poland’s cc 2500 municipalities have the numbers of those infected risen sharply. However, restrictions on travel may return as the pandemic accelerates again in Europe. The government has already signalled that it is considering re-introducing quarantine for visitors and returnees from certain countries.

The minister’s holiday has, however, been rudely interrupted by the spike. He had every reason to feel tired after months of coping with the pandemic and then the attacks on him over allegations of nepotism in the award of funding and complaints about the costs of some of the contracts for supplies of essential equipment. But the matter is not yet enough of a political emergency to get the ruling leader Jarosław Kaczyński to interrupt his holiday, he is still able to continue to master bait while fishing on the lakes and to climb hills in the company of friends.

However, the ruling party will be relieved that the presidential election is out of the way. It had always feared an election during a second wave of the pandemic or in the middle of a sharp economic downturn caused by the health crisis. But for holidaymakers due to have their break in August the upturn in the number of infections brings some unwelcome anxiety. The tourist and travel industry may suffer again. It really has not been their year.