Updated: Apr 14
Easter's Damp Squib
Easter in Poland, as in all deeply Christian countries, is an incredibly important time of coming together and spending time with families. Churches are full as food is blessed and priests preach to their congregations. Families meet on Easter Sunday for a traditional breakfast of żurek (sour rye soup), eggs and ham with horseradish. Chocolate is of course eaten, if not in the vast quantities that it is in the UK. Easter Monday also has its own peculiar tradition in Poland – that of 'Smingus Dingus' – an ancient ritual predating Christianity in which males sprinkle females with water in a fun, if damp, fertility rite. Similar traditions exist across central and eastern Europe. Most important though is the tradition of seeing family and getting together for celebrations. Ironically, at a time when life is in bloom all around in nature, and we think about rebirth, we are surrounded, catastrophically, by death. The Covid19 virus has simply strangled the life out of our world, and our lives have changed, unrecognizably, for the worse.
The Good News..
This year in Poland, as in the majority of the world, Easter is denied to most people – those that don't live with their families already at least – as the country stoically suffers through the period of quarantine. Three weeks ago, not long after the period when lockdown began, when we were still able to roam outside freely, I wrote an article which was relatively positive in outlook regarding the Polish response to Covid19 and people's reaction to the strict new rules in place. Poland had closed its borders, shut down its airports and ceased trade in all bars, restaurants, malls and places of entertainment after only a handful of cases had been recorded - and no deaths. Fearful of a deluge of cases that would inundate the hospitals, Poland implemented some of the strictest measures in the world, along with neighbouring countries like Czech, Slovakia and Hungary. So far, the restrictions can be said to have worked because as of April 13th, there have only been 6674 recorded cases and 232 deaths, which puts Poland in 26th place in the world (12th in Europe), slightly behind Chile and just ahead of Norway. With a far larger population than either, on the face of it then, Poland is doing well. The measures are working, and we can hope to get back to normality soon. We look at the soaring number of cases in Spain, Italy, France, the UK and US and think that Poland has done a good job, so far.
PiS: Bending the Rules
But that is only half the story. There are a number of extenuating factors which are beginning to make people fearful, doubtful, anxious and even angry – and wonder whether the Polish government might be doing everything it can to solve this crisis – and if its actions are entirely altruistic. On Saturday night, April 4th, there were clandestine moves in the Polish Sejm (Parliament) to change the constitution regarding regulations leading up to and conducting an election. For there is a Presidential election scheduled in Poland for 10th May, and the government is doing everything it can to ensure that it goes ahead – presumably in the knowledge that it is very difficult if not impossible for any opposition to campaign effectively during the period of lockdown, and that the President (Duda), a PiS (governing Law and Justice party) representative, will remain in situ. This is essential to government plans to push through its more controversial measures, such as full reform of the judiciary and outright ban on abortion, as they lost control of the lower part of Parliament to the opposition late last year. The reforms which were made mean that the vote will be done by post – an experiment which has never been tried before – and which will no doubt mean a low turn out, especially in cities, where queues for post offices and boxes would be horrendous - and a risk to health. In addition, the system is massively open to corruption, and would be very hard for any EU observers to ratify, although it doesn't break any rules. It's fairly safe to assume that lockdown will continue until the election (at least) for this reason. In addition, any debates that the government might hold, and bills that might be brought in (the abortion issue is to be discussed on Wednesday 16th, along with a proposed ban on sex education) can take place with the government safe in the knowledge that no street protests can take place in response to them, like they did the last time they tried in 2016. Is Poland going to go down the same authoritarian route that Victor Orban's Hungary seems to be, using the crisis as an excuse for a power grab?
Fine to Exercise?
Another issue is to do with the policing and the implementation of the lockdown. When it comes to most things in Polish public and civic life, there is often a lack of accountability, transparency and clarity. The new regulations when it comes to what we are and what we are not allowed to do is no exception. We are, ostensibly at least, banned from walking, jogging or cycling in parks, forests and national parks. We are also not allowed to walk outside with anyone (even spouses) without observing the two metre rule. Under 18's aren't allowed out at all unless accompanied by an adult. And yet, the health minister has stated that we should be allowed to “fill our lungs with fresh air from time to time”. the exact rules of where we can go, however, are far from clear - as are the fines that can be imposed. I myself have been on several walks around the fringes of Kraków where it is supposedly allowed, even walking past parked police cars, and have not been stopped. Yet we hear (possibly apocryphal) stories on the news of fines of between 5000 and 30,000 PLN (£1000-6000) being bandied about by the usually fine-happy straż miejska (street police). That represents between around one and six months' average salary to most people in Poland. When compared to the £60-100 (300-500 PLN) spot fines being issued for similar infractions in the UK, are the rules too strict, especially when they are not at all clear to most people? Presumably they could be contested in a court of law by any half-decent lawyer, as they contradict what is in the constitution. I myself have been stopped by police on my bike but not fined whilst near the river, whilst apparently somebody doing exactly the same thing was fined 12,000 PLN (£2400). And when we see government ministers gathering without face masks, in crowds, without social distancing, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy, it seems somewhat trifling and ridiculous to fine lone cyclists or joggers in forests. Another irritant is that church masses haven't been banned outright; groups of five or less are allowed still. If groups of five are not allowed to meet elsewhere, even if they are related and live together, you have to wonder why. Poles have an expression which is extremely useful and applicable to this type of situation - 'kombinować' - a verb which loosely translates as 'bend the rules,' or 'find a way around the system.' It was often used during Communist times to describe how canny and resourceful people managed to beat the system in small ways. A skilled proponent of this art is known (usually semi-admiringly) as a 'kombinator'. Avoiding the police and their punitive fines has become a bit of an exercise in this during these challenging times.
Turning to businesses, particularly in the hospitality, leisure and food industries, the question has to be posed: are the government doing enough for them, and how long can they survive the current situation on the sort of compensation they are being offered? Social insurance payments (ZUS) have been suspended for three months, which has helped businesses no question, but otherwise the offer of 50% payments to businesses on their February earnings is somewhat derisory – particularly as that is a fairly dead month for many businesses. There is no question that bars are having a tough time of it, and many may be forced out of business, particularly if the present situation persists. Irish publican Fergus Duffy, owner of Duffy's pub, takes a sanguine, if cautious, view though: “The information from the media seems to contradict itself...as for government support, it seems to be very little if any at all. Fortunately I haven't had to let any staff go yet. I am positive though – I'm hoping we open up 1st June at the latest.” Recently-opened (and reviewed on this site) Oke Poke restaurant owner, Jolanta Malec, takes a slightly less positive view: “My rent has been reduced, so I am lucky, this a huge cost for my small business. I feel the government isn't providing huge support, but they have reduced obligatory insurance payments. It is something, but they could do more. I have no income at the moment and no online presence. I definitely have a negative outlook as there won't be as many tourists in Krakow this year. It'll be hard for us as a new restaurant.” There are stories of some businesses turning to crowd funding to stay afloat. Any restaurants with no online presence (essentially the fine dining places, especially ones with high rents in the centre) could be in severe trouble if this continues much longer. Small businesses are a barometer for the economic health of the country as a whole, and the condition is looking particularly alarming. The longer the lockdown continues, the worse that will get – and at some point, a decision will have to be made between saving the tanking economy and risking spreading the disease. There are many that fear the worst - and this is one of the major headaches for governments everywhere.
Finally, how well is Poland dealing with the crisis on a medical level? Again, ostensibly, so far, so good. The hospitals aren't (yet) overflowing, and by and large the situation seems to be under control. However, there is always a caveat. This one is that Poland is sorely lacking in many areas (if not all) which, if the system does come under stress of any sort, could lead to complete collapse. From lack of (especially good quality) PPE to lack of beds, ICU units and doctors themselves, the bigger picture doesn't look brilliant. Also, like many countries, Poland's actual figures of infection and death are both undoubtedly higher as only tested cases in hospitals are really being accounted for. Add to the mix the fact that the testing rate in Poland at just 2200 per million of population (putting it second last in the EU after/before Romania), and the picture is positively worrying. Were there to be a release of lockdown restrictions, and these limitations tested, would Poland be able to cope? Which leads to the question – what is the ultimate exit strategy? Is there one? While other countries like Austria, Czech, Greece and Denmark make positive noises about relaxing restrictions, Poland's only seem to get more restrictive and draconian.
So, the picture in Poland at Easter is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a curate's egg – good in parts, but inedible, if not rotten, in others. There are some reasons to be cheerful, but at least, if not more, reasons to be fearful going into the second month of lockdown. Poles tend to be a pessimistic bunch at the best of times, and suspicious of government motives even when things are going well, and these times only exacerbate that. When the May bank holiday rolls around in about three weeks, if the harsh conditions persist, with the presidential elections looming, the mood may have hardened from what is now ambivalent but tending towards the anxious and restive to the outright hostile. There is of course also the elephant in the room in all this: how long can you keep a populace under de facto house arrest without it collectively losing its mind? It's a massive social experiment being conducted globally now with varying degrees of harshness. No one knows the answer, but one thing is clear: it cannot be indefinitely. We can only hope that Easter proves to be the nadir, and not a step towards that point. With cases far away from a peak yet, that hope seems distant.
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