Finally, in a broader sense, the cultural and behavioral specificities of the populations of Central European countries have also helped contain the spread of the virus. A significant proportion of the population had already started to drastically limit their movements even before the lockdown was established, having seen how the situation was developing in Western Europe. According to geolocation data from Google, the use of public transport has fallen by nearly 60%, and traveling to work has decreased by 40%. Wearing face masks became mandatory early on, and traditionally, there is more social distancing in Central Europe than in Western or Southern Europe. Additionally, the proportion of rural populations, which are usually less mobile and engage in fewer social interactions, is higher in these countries than in the west of the continent (40% in Poland compared to 22% in Germany, 19% in France and 16% in the United Kingdom).
This positive outcome is one of the main reasons why the population is very satisfied with the authorities' response to the crisis: on March 10, 52.5% of Poles considered the government to be handling it very well or rather well, while only 22.6% expressed negative opinions. At the end of March, the Minister of Health, Łukasz Szumowski, a cardiologist and professor of medicine, was the third most popular political figure, after President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Covid-19 and the crisis in the hospital sector
The radicality of the measures adopted by the Polish government can be taken as a sign that it was quick to recognize the severity of the pandemic. At the same time, it is likely also an admission of the inability of state services to care for infected members of the population effectively. Indeed, Poland's health sector suffers from chronic underinvestment. In 2018, public and private health spending accounted for only 6.3% of the country's GDP, compared with 8.8% in Italy and 11.2% in Germany and France. The country has approximately 10,000 respirators overall and 4.85 intensive care beds per 1,000 inhabitants, which is more than France (3.09‰), but less than Belgium (4.98‰) and Germany (6.02‰). Low wages and poor working conditions, which have led to several mass strikes by hospital staff in recent years, have driven many doctors and nurses to emigrate to the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Given the staffing challenges this has caused over the past few years, many Polish hospitals have been forced to close entire departments. The lack of medical personnel and underinvestment in hospitals have proven to be a serious burden to the system during the coronavirus crisis. According to the Ministry of Health, nearly one-third of infections are caused by contact in a hospital or clinic, whether with other patients or medical staff.
The economic impact of the health crisis
The Covid-19 epidemic will have a considerable impact on the Polish economy. According to various scenarios, GDP growth is expected to vary between a rise of 1.7% and a decrease of 10.7%, and unemployment may rise to a rate of between 5.4% and 10.2%. It is likely that the Polish economy will not begin to recover from the crisis until 2021. Given that less than 30% of Poles have any savings and that a quarter of workers - one of the highest rates in the EU - are in flexible forms of employment (self-employed status, task-based or piecework contracts) and therefore not covered by unemployment insurance, the economic impact of the crisis could jeopardize the government's popularity.
The weakening of the rule of law
The Covid-19 crisis has ultimately proved to be an opportunity for the Polish government to try and force through some controversial laws and strengthen the position of Andrzej Duda, the outgoing president and candidate for re-election.
The emergency law that the government passed on March 2 in preparation for the Covid-19 crisis was very quickly characterized as repressive, giving the authorities arbitrary power without judicial overview. Also, some observers claimed that the law established a de facto 180-day state of emergency, even though the Polish constitution already stipulates the framework of a state of emergency (excluding elections) and limits its duration to 90 days.
On April 16, the Polish Parliament, dominated by the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, re-examined the "Stop Abortion" bill. While the right to abortion is already highly restricted in Poland - it is allowed only when the continuance of the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother or in cases of incest, rape and severe fetal deformities - the bill, initiated by the Ordo Iuris Institute, an organization close to PiS, has proposed striking fetal deformities from the conditions allowing access to abortions. Given that this condition constitutes 95% of abortions performed in the country, such a change in the law would be tantamount to banning abortion entirely. Despite the ban on gatherings due to the pandemic, women's groups staged demonstrations near Parliament, forming a long line outside a grocery store and displaying banners and signs with their slogans. Due to the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 epidemic and the protests, MPs refused to vote on the proposal and referred it back to the committee until further notice. At the same time, Parliament referred to two other controversial bills back to committee. The first proposed to criminalize the promotion of underage sexual activity. According to its critics, its true aim is to ban sex education classes in schools. The other bill was aimed at blocking possible Jewish claims to property for which there are no living heirs in Poland after World War II.