World’s Worst-Hit Covid Region Struggles to Maintain Curbs

Parts of Eastern Europe, currently the world’s deadliest region for Covid-19, are facing increasing pushback against extensions to curbs on daily life designed to halt the spread of the virus.

The Czech government is battling the opposition about prolonging a state of emergency. Hungary, meanwhile -- which has the highest mortality rate globally during the past week -- will shorten its night-time curfew and allow all stores to reopen a few days after Easter.

As a third wave of the disease sweeps across the continent, 10 of the world’s 11 worst-hit countries are located in the east, where adherence to restrictions has fallen short and years of under-investment in health-care is being felt in some nations.

“We’re living the most difficult weeks of the pandemic,” Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban told state radio, even as he went against calls by local doctors for stricter measures.

It’s unclear how quickly the virus will recede once it plateaus, he said. Hungary plans to ease measures when 2.5 million people -- equivalent to the population aged 65 and over -- are forecast to have received at least their first vaccine dose.

The Czech and Hungarian developments follow an only minor tightening of curbs in Poland, which recorded another record number of daily new cases on Friday. New measures announced a day earlier included shutting nurseries and large furniture stores, while pandemic risks sent the zloty tumbling a 12-year low.

“It’s absolutely critical that constraint measures are kept in place,” Gaetan Lafortune, a health economist at the OECD, a Paris-based club of the world’s richest nations, said by phone. “Maintaining curbs for several months more may not be enough, some countries may need to strengthen them.”

Some are acting more forcefully: Romania limited opening hours for shops and extended a curfew in high infection areas.

Why East Europe?

Lafortune said east Europe is suffering in part because of past mistakes. After the initial wave of the pandemic a year ago left the region relatively unscathed, compared with nations such as Italy or Spain, policy makers were slow to clamp down when a second wave hit last fall.

This meant that when the third round of infections came in 2021, countries across the formerly communist region still had elevated infection levels and less hospital capacity. Making things worse, they were hit with a more dangerous U.K.-variant of the virus.

The spat in the Czech Republic demonstrates political battles as lockdown fatigue builds in the run-up to Easter and vaccination programs continue to mostly stutter.

The opposition is focusing on the latest data showing new cases fell by about a quarter from a week ago while the minority cabinet warned a premature relaxation could lead to another spike.

“The numbers are improving and that’s good news but infections are still pretty high,” Health Minister Jan Blatny said. “If everything goes as we wish, then relaxing the ban on travel between counties could be possible the week after Easter.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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