New York —

Both Italy and France, Spain and the United Kingdom have overcome the barrier of 25,000 deaths from COVID-19, while if we add the deaths in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Romania, the figure does not reach 3,000

The coronavirus crisis has drawn a kind of health border between the countries of Western Europe and those of central and eastern Europe.

Both Italy and France, Spain and the United Kingdom have each overcome the barrier of 25,000 killed by COVID-19, while if we add the number of deaths in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Romania lThe figure does not reach 3,000.

Of course they are countries with a much smaller population, but if you look at the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, the gap becomes clear.

Compared to the 54.42 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants registered in Spain, the 48.12 in Italy, the 37.63 in France or the 43.33 in the United Kingdom, Poland registers 1.84; Slovakia 0.46; Czech Republic 2.37; Hungary 3.59; Austria 6.78, and Romania 4.20 (figures from Johns Hopkins University as of May 6, 2020).

The lower incidence of coronavirus has led to several of these countries to lift the quarantine measures before and to a greater extent than some of its western neighbors.

But how do you explain this gap between east and west on such an interconnected continent?

Quick actions

As we saw in other European countries that have registered a good performance in the fight against the coronavirus, such as Greece or Portugal, also several nations in central and eastern Europe had the time advantage.

While Italy recorded its first cases of the new coronavirus in January, the disease did not reach Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. until early March.

“(The virus) came later, so we had an alert (in what was happening in Italy and Spain) of what could happen,” Agnieszka Sowa-Kofta, a specialist in Health and Social Policy at the Center for Polish social and economic research (CASE).

“Knowing that our health systems are poorer in terms of financing, equipment, preparation … the authorities in all these countries committed themselves to very fast action.”

Among these actions, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were among the first European countries to close their borders. In addition, other restrictive measures were introduced such as the closing of schools and non-essential businesses and restrictions on the movement of people when the number of cases was very low.

Italy or Spain, for example, introduced similar measures when the number of infections was in the thousands.

“For example, quarantine in Poland was decreed when there were 11 cases and the borders were closed very quickly in these countries… so mobility was greatly reduced and the possibility of spreading the virus also

.Militaries patrol a desert in Budapest.

However, Sowa-Kofta also notes that all cases may not be being reported.

“There are voices of virologists in Poland saying that there are more cases than reported, but that also happens in Western Europe, we really don’t know the scale,” he says.

For Thomas Czypionka, a health policy specialist at the Vienna-based Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), a key factor in explaining the lower incidence of coronavirus in eastern and central Europe is that these countries have fewer connections to China, where the new coronavirus originated at the end of last year.

“Italy, for example, has very strong ties with China, through immigrant workers in its textile industry, and they also receive many more Chinese tourists,” the expert tells BBC Mundo. “Eastern countries have less ties to China.”

“When they have a problem, we have a problem”

A particular case is that of Austria, a country that borders northern Italy and that it has been one of the most successful in containing the pandemic.

Austria has more than 15,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 608 deaths.

The first cases of coronavirus were registered in the Central European country on February 25: a couple of Italians living in Innsbruck, who had recently visited their home in Lombardy, northern Italy.

However, the death toll per 100,000 inhabitants of Austria (6.78) is more similar to that of its other neighbor, Germany (8.28), than to Italy (47.80).

“One factor is that having the border with Italy, when we received the news from Italy, we acted very quickly because we knew that when they have a problem, we have a problem,” explains Czypionka.

“We have very strong links between western Austria and northern Italy. We knew that through these connections, the virus would also hit us. So the government acted very quickly. “

The expert explains that coronavirus became a reportable disease (each suspected case had to be reported to the Ministry of Health) on January 27, while in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, this occurred in March.

In early March, with few registered cases, Austria imposed travel restrictions -prohibited entries from Italy due to the spread of the virus in that country-, closed schools and universities and, as of March 12, introduced limitations on the movement of people, something that many considered to be a bit radical, since almost no European country had taken such drastic measures.

Following the example of its eastern neighbors, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria also introduced the compulsory use of mchips in supermarkets and public transportation, when there was still no conclusive evidence on its effectiveness.

.Ski resorts became hotbeds of contagion in Austria.

Age factor and family structure

For Czypionka there are other factors that explain the particularity of the Austrian case – and by extension of other countries in central Europe – compared to countries such as Italy or Spain.

“One of them,” he explains, “has to do with the way the virus was introduced into these societies. In many central European countries the virus was introduced into a demo layergFyoung ica

“In Austria, for example, the virus was introduced through people who ski, who are usually young, and they passed the virus on to their peers. That is, people in their 40s infected others in their 40s. ”

Unlike in Italy, for example, where the virus spread in areas where an older population is concentrated, “the virus spread in the countries of central Europe in a demographic layer that was not at risk.”

.In Austria, a factor contributing to the low incidence of coronavirus was that the disease was introduced into the country through young people.

Czypionka highlights another factor that played a key role in how the virus was contained in central and eastern Europe: the percentage of young people living with their elderly parents is higher in Italy, Spain, and even France, than in the central and eastern Europe.

That is to say, transmission to risk groups was much more limited, according to the expert.

“In Spain or Italy, the virus spread to older generations faster than in central and eastern Europe because the family structure is different.”

Lifting of restrictive measures

Just as they were among the first countries to impose restrictive measures, the countries of central and eastern Europe are also among the first to lift the quarantine.

Austria became one of the first countries in Europe to lift the restrictions, with the reopening of small stores on April 14, while the use of masks is still mandatory in public transport and establishments.

On May 1, the reopening of hairdressers, shops of more than 400 square meters and outdoor sports facilities were allowed. Restaurants, bars and museums are expected to reopen later this month.

In Hungary, except in the capital Budapest, outdoor spaces in cafes and restaurants reopened on Monday, May 4, as did public beaches and spas.

In SlovakiaFor example, where there are a total of 1,421 cases and only 25 deaths, as of Wednesday the stores that are not in large shopping malls, hotels, museums, galleries and outdoor tourist attractions are already opening.

.Austria was one of the first countries in Europe to ease quarantine restrictions.

In Poland, hotels, shopping malls, some cultural centers, including libraries and certain museums, reopened on May 4.

Sowa-Kofta, from the Polish think tank CASE, explains that the reasons for the reopening in Poland are political: The government wanted to hold the presidential elections scheduled for this May 10, perhaps not through a face-to-face vote, but by mail, although there were several questions about its legitimacy.

Finally, the Polish government had to postpone them. The election will be rescheduled for a date “as soon as possible.”

But the expert explains that most of the other countries in central and eastern Europe decided to reopen so quickly because of the threat posed by restrictions to its economy.

“After performing well in recent years, it has now fallen very fast, with unemployment rates not seen since the 1990s,” he says.

And, despite the rapid reaction, these countries will not be immune to the economic crisis that is causing the coronavirus.