The Irish Times view on European crisis management: lessons from the east

Central and eastern European states have done a better job at containing Covid-19 than their western neighbours

The uneven spread of coronavirus and differential rates of testing make comparisons between states unreliable as benchmarks of best performance. But whole different orders of magnitude can provide important lessons. The notable success of central and eastern Europe (CEE) is a case in point. The divide across Europe is striking: Spain has recorded 580 deaths per million, Italy 524, and the UK 499. Ireland is down the table at 308. But Slovakia has recorded five, Poland 22, the Czech Republic 27 and Austria 70, not far behind Germany.

Part of their story is the late start. Italy and the UK had their first infections in January. The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, not until the first week of March, giving precious extra time to understand the risks.

Population densities and demographics differ. In Austria, just 5 per cent of over-30s live with their parents. The figure is much higher in Italy.

But these countries also moved rapidly when their first cases were detected. While in most western European nations, public events like Cheltenham were still going on in mid-March, in CEE governments saw what was happening in Italy and implemented rapid lockdowns. “There wasn’t any of the misguided exceptionalism we saw in the UK,” Cambridge health researcher Olga Loblova points out. “No one [IN CEE]looked at Italy and said: that would never happen to us.”


Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic were among the first in the EU to close their borders, and, along with Austria, also quickly introduced other far-reaching restrictions on daily life, like closing non-essential shops and strictly limiting public gatherings. The obligatory wearing of masks outdoors was implemented very early on by the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Other researchers suggest that the very weakness of local underfunded health services may have contributed to the willingness to accept and abide by lockdown. “It was exactly the fact we felt vulnerable about our healthcare system that made people follow the lockdown,” notes Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev.