How Poorer Eastern European Nations Have Largely Kept Covid-19 Cases under Control

By Derrick Dyess, University of Southern Mississippi

The entire world has been grappling with the deadly effects of the Covid-19 virus. The virus spread quickly across oceans, continents and countries without mercy. Millions have fallen ill with Covid-19, and more than half a million people were left dead in its wake. The number of cases, and deaths continue to rise, especially in the United States. Although the virus is indiscriminate as it brings destruction from country to country, the scale of the pandemic is not the same in some countries and some regions.

Puzzle of Lower Numbers in Eastern Europe

Several countries in the Eastern European region have experienced significantly lower numbers of Covid-19 cases than most. At first glance, they appear to be ill-prepared to handle Covid-19.  These countries are not known for having robust and healthy economies. They are also not known for the quality or size of their healthcare systems. Furthermore, most of these countries belong to the European Union, so workers and trade move freely in and out of those countries. So, given these factors, how have they managed to contain transmission of Covid-19, and not be as devastated as the rest of the world?

Legacy of Authoritarian Governments

The answer seems to be that countries in Eastern Europe, such as Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, have a long history of being governed under authoritarian regimes, which created a society that is more reactive to government actions and government demands. These countries, overall, acted faster than most nations to enforce a strict lockdown, limit travel, ban public gatherings, ban international travel, etc. These measures were bold, and more successful in slowing the spread of the virus, thanks in part to having a history of strict governance over their people.

The Czech Republic, for example, reported it is first Covid-19 case on March 12th, and by March 16th, the country was under full lockdown. The country did not see its first death until March 22nd.  By contrast, most countries to the West, such as the UK, US, Italy, experienced swift increases in deaths from Covid-19 before lockdown efforts were fully in effect. Many Eastern European nations have used similar strategies as the Czech Republic and have managed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The swift lockdown actions came into effect to not overburden their already poor healthcare systems. If cases were to spread as they have in Italy and in the United States, it would decimate their populations. These factors play a role in Eastern European countries experiencing less suffering and death as compared to other countries. However, this is not the only cause of such a phenomenon.

Countries like Slovakia are making use of a controversial tactic to limit the spread of Covid-19 by tracking its citizens. The country is making use of harnessed telecoms data. This technology allows the government to track locations of Covid-19 positive patients, where they have been, whom they may have become in contact, and can be used to monitor and enforce quarantine lockdowns. This tactic is highly controversial and is in use in only a few countries, as it raises significant privacy issues.  Yet tracking citizens appears to be a factor in slowing the spread of the virus.

Assessing the Numbers

The data for assessing the effectiveness of authoritarian measures in Eastern Europe is incomplete.  It is important to note that countries of Eastern Europe test on a much smaller scale for Covid-19, and only report positive cases. As a result, the number of cases is likely higher than reported. It is easy to count suspected deaths from the virus, so there are other means to monitor the spread of Covid-19 than just relying on testing. The death rates, measured by this approach, still remain low in comparison to elsewhere. Although some of these measures to fight Covid-19 could be characterized as being draconian, the measures nonetheless appear to indicate that the measures have achieved positive results in the combating Covid-19.  

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Derrick Dyess is a Graduate Student at the University of Southern Mississippi – Gulf Park. He is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Political Science in the School of Social Science and Global Studies. His Master’s thesis examines the adaptation and focus of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
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