Analysis: tensions over Covid response as infections rocket

As the number of infections moves inexorably upwards each week the Polish government is increasingly under pressure from the public regarding its management of response to the second wave of the pandemic.

The contrast with the spring couldn’t be starker. Back in March the government imposed a lockdown which had massive public support. The objective was to ensure that infection would not spread and Poland’s health service would not witness scenes similar to those in Italy or Spain.

The public responded well with social distancing, wearing of face protectors all respected. The schools were shut and many employees worked from home. Borders were effectively closed, whilst a shielding programme was introduced to keep people and businesses in work.

The economic cost of that lockdown was high. Instead of a balanced budget the government estimates that the budget deficit will reach cc25 billion Euro.

But the lockdown achieved the expected outcome. Infections were well contained and never exceeded 600 on any day.

People making hay while the sun shined

In the summer the economy was opened up. People went on holidays and international travel returned. More and more public events, including weddings, were held. And school pupils and students returned in September.

The rate of infections began to rise. This week infections have shot up from under 5,000 to just over 8,000 on Thursday.

A more nuanced approach from the government

But this time around the government has been most reluctant to introduce a total shutdown. It has opted for a step-by step approach of tailoring local restrictions to the levels of infections in each locality. But now that over 100 counties, including the major cities, are in the red zone, a lockdown by stealth is creeping in.

The government however is reluctant to declare a state of emergency or to rush in with further economic shielding measures. It wants to hold out until the EU funding from the EU recovery fund becomes available. But agreement greenlighting this funding is still to be reached inside the EU.

Bigger challenge this time around

The challenge this time around is that the spread of the virus is more dispersed. People also seem much less inclined to voluntarily restrict the course of their lives. There have actually been several demonstrations against the wearing of face protectors. The biggest problems however are facing the health service.

Poland has for years suffered from shortages of doctors and nurses. Health funding in Poland as a proportion of its GDP is still below the EU average, despite recent rises and government commitments to increases over the next few years.

The arrival of the second wave of the pandemic is putting a strain on hospital beds and ventilators. Laboratories are nearing the limit of daily tests they can service. Track and trace is not particularly advanced in Poland either. But the biggest problem seems to be shortages of doctors and medical staff.

The government is being accused by the opposition and parts of the media of having failed to prepare for a second wave. It was common knowledge that it was coming.

The public is irritated by news that there is a shortage of flu jabs and long lines of people waiting to be tested for the presence of COVID. The red hotline on which people can get information and advice is not working well.

Row about Mr Sasin’s remarks

On Tuesday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Jacek Sasin criticised some medical workers for shielding themselves rather than getting involved with coping with the COVID pandemic. The comment provoked outrage from the medical profession who accused the government of trying to shift the blame for the fact that the pandemic is hitting hard.

According to the Polish Press Agency (PAP) there is evidence of some doctors and medical staff refusing to fulfill their duties. Provincial prefects report that district medical boards are reluctant to delegate workers to COVID duties and that when pressed to do so the number of staff claiming sick leave increased suddenly.

The government has powers to assign medical personnel to specific facilities. That power comes from the legislation on combating the pandemic which has been in force for several years. Medical staff complain that too often those reassigned are single mothers, retired doctors of family practitioners who are needed to combat the pandemic in their general practices.

Politics and the pandemic

The opposition are critical of the government, despite the PMs efforts to bring them in on what is being decided. The PM held a meeting with all opposition parties earlier in the week. Some of the demands made by the Civic Platform, such as carrying out at least 100,000 tests per day are not in the government’s power to grant since it is doctors who take decisions to send people to be tested.

The radical right “Confederation” have opposed any restrictions such as the wearing of face masks or limitations on the right to trade. They argue that the pandemic must not be allowed to further damage Poland’s economy and lead to further unemployment.

The government is attempting to steer a middle way between the pandemic deniers and the advocates of another massive lockdown. But that middle way is proving harder to communicate than the lockdown in the spring.

This time around the messaging seems less clear. Or it may just be that the ministers who left the government, Łukasz Szumowski (Health) and Jadwiga Emilewicz (Development) were better communicators than the new appointees to those posts.

PM Morawiecki, who has himself been in quarantine this week as he had contact with one of the government security staff who contracted the virus, is having to do most of the explaining of the government’s position. He will be keenly aware that the public is unlikely to be in a forgiving mood for the pandemic getting out of control.

The next few weeks may be critical for the PM, the government and the course of the pandemic in Poland and beyond. Normal politics did resume in Poland with the presidential election and the arguments within both the government and the opposition afterwards. But once again that little fella called “Covid” seems to have taken centre stage and is calling all the shots.