By any objective assessment, governments in the eastern half of Europe have dealt with the Covid-19 outbreak better than many in the west. Yet, because of deep-seated attitudes of superiority, few are giving credit where it’s due.
Compare the decisiveness with which eastern European countries pulled up their drawbridges, with the hesitation in the west. On March 12, French President Emmanuel Macron declared “this virus has no passport”. As I wrote at the time, liberal ideology and virtue signaling were being put before public health.
Europe is divided again, but this time not by a wall.
Compare the Covid-19 deaths worldwide per one million population, as of April 22, by country.
Top of the list is Belgium with 525.12 deaths per million. Then comes Spain (445.49), Italy (407.87), France (310.45), the UK (261.37), the Netherlands (227.26), Switzerland (173.54), Sweden (173.33), and then Ireland (150.41). Spot anything? They’re all western European countries.
You have to scroll down quite a way before you get to countries in central or eastern Europe.
Romania has had 25.57 deaths per million. Hungary, 23.03; Czechia, 18.92; Serbia, 17.9; Croatia, 11.74; Poland, 10.6; Bulgaria, 7.02; Belarus, 5.8; Latvia, 4.67; Ukraine, 3.61; Russia, 3.16; Albania, 2.87; and Slovakia, 2.57 (amounting to just 14 deaths).
How can we explain this new division of Europe? Well, it’s clear that geography has played its part. The main vector for the spread of Covid-19 has been population movements and, in particular, international air travel. More people visit western Europe than the east. There’s more coming and going. Covid-19 can be seen accurately as a virus of turbo-globalization, and western European countries are more turbo-globalised than those to the east. They also tend to be more densely populated, with some very large cities, which the virus likes, as it allows it to spread quicker.
But while eastern Europe has a number of ‘natural’ advantages, this doesn’t, I think, tell the whole story. Governments in eastern Europe have generally shown more common sense than most of their western counterparts. They quickly did the most obvious thing that you need to do when a virus has got its walking boots and rucksack on: they closed borders.
On March 12, Czechia declared a state of emergency and barred travelers from 15 countries hit by the novel coronavirus, including Iran, Italy, China and the UK. It then went into a ‘lockdown.’ On the same day Slovakia closed its borders to non-residents and imposed a mandatory quarantine for anyone returning from abroad.
Poland closed its borders on March 15 and Hungary followed suit one day later. Russia’s far east border with China had already been closed since the end of January.
The virus might not have a passport, but the people carrying it in from China, and then from Italy, most certainly did! It was only on March 17 that there were signs that western European states were going to do what their eastern neighbors had already done. “The less we travel, the more we contain the virus,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. You don’t say!
At least western continental Europe did take some action on borders, albeit a week or so too late. Britain, by contrast, while imposing a ‘lockdown’ on domestic citizens, has continued to allow into the country unchecked flights from all over the world, including from New York, Iran and China.
It’s not just shutting borders and imposing strict quarantine measures that eastern European countries did right.
Generally, they’ve been quicker to act than their western counterparts. The culture of government undoubtedly plays a part.
I lived in Hungary for several years in the 1990s and was impressed by what I call the ‘administrative class.’ The people who work for the government, the civil servants, the old communist ’bureaucracy’, if you like, were very competent. They got the job done, with a minimum of fuss. In so many ways because of this efficient administration and a very high level of general and technical education, eastern European countries are actually better-run than many in the west, particularly Britain, where incompetence seems to lead on to great rewards. Countries where there was a ‘five-year-plan’ political culture not surprisingly are better at planning than those where there wasn’t. Or, as the old saying has it, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Another legacy of the much-maligned socialist era might also have played a big part in minimizing the impact of Covid-19 in eastern Europe. As RT reported earlier in the month, ‘striking’ evidence has emerged showing that the BCG tuberculosis vaccine might be protective against Covid-19.
Vaccinating their populations against TB was enthusiastically taken up by the socialist-bloc countries in the 1950s and remains mandatory in many, even though communism is gone. In Russia for instance, it is still given to children from three to five days old. By contrast, the USA and Italy never had a universal BCG programme, and, while Spain doesn’t have one either, its neighbour Portugal still does, and has had only 74.11 Covid-19-related deaths per million, compared to neighboring Spain’s 455.49.
The BCG programme may yet prove to be at least among the reasons why the old state of East Germany has a lower Covid-19 death toll than the western part of the country.
Germany is the only western European country that had a ‘socialist’ half – and it’s that socialist half which has helped bring its per-capita death rate down.
The failure to properly credit eastern Europe for its low Covid-related death rates reeks of bad sportsmanship.
Let me give you one example. On Monday evening I tweeted how Hungary had less than 220 deaths from Covid-19, compared to the UK’s 16,000. By any objective assessment, Hungary had done better than the UK.
“I guess that settles it” @JusticeTyrwhit tweeted. “Orban is actually ok then and we were wrong to oppose fascism all along….?”
For a certain type of superior westerner, eastern Europe’s governments can never do any good. If you say they have handled something well, you are ‘dog whistling’ your support for ‘fascism’ or ‘communism.’
Draconian Covid-19 lockdowns in the west of Europe are ‘sensible’ and police overreach is played down, draconian Covid-19 lockdowns in the east are displayed as signs of proof that these countries are run by ‘dictators’ and have a ‘long authoritarian tradition.’
It’s time that those with the Cold War mindset of ‘Order of The Coif‘ stopped patronizing the east and showed a little more humility. For, when it comes to dealing with Covid-19, governments in ‘backward’ eastern Europe have generally served their populations better than those in ‘advanced’ western ones.
By Neil Clark