In a somber tone, Boris Johnson warned the British people of the tragedy to come. Many more would lose their loved ones, he said. Many more would die. The date was March 12, 2020. It was a whole two months after the UK registered its first case. On that same day, Slovakia went into lockdown six days after its first registered case. The Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia, and Slovenia – all having recently registered their first cases – followed Slovakia’s lead. While Western European countries dragged their feet, Central Europe acted. Quarantines, border closures, curfews – nationwide lockdown.
Not All Lockdowns Were Created Equal
Since then nearly every other European country has done the same. But not all lockdowns have been equal. As of April 23, the UK has over 270 Coronavirus deaths per million people. France 320, Italy 415, and Spain 464. Between these four countries, thousands still die every day. Meanwhile in Slovakia, less than 3 people have died per million citizens. Of the remaining Central European countries mentioned, Slovenia has the highest death rate with 38. Why have deaths for Western European countries been a whole order of magnitude higher than they have been for their less developed Central and Eastern European neighbors?
Explaining Western Europe’s Crisis
Plenty of explanations have been provided by astute Western commentators. The BCG vaccine, lack of tourism, under-reporting. Even Communism has been offered as an explanation. These dubious proposals miss a glaringly obvious observation. Far from being some wildly successful Central European experiment in need of explanation, these countries simply followed the lead of those who knew best – Asian countries.
Asia experienced SARS in the early 2000s, and then the novel coronavirus before the rest of the world in 2020. They were better prepared, and implemented quicker and more effective responses than anyone else. There was no need to experiment. Asia’s experience was there for all to follow. Small Central European states looked to China’s example and went into “Wuhan-style” lockdown as quickly as they could. Relative to the spread of the virus, Central Europe acted far, far quicker than Western Europe.
It Can’t Happen Here? Wrong
The true experiments, meanwhile, have been in Western European countries. Most notably Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden whose strategies are based on untested theoretical models which rely on unproven behavioral theories and have led them to either delay proven measures or not implement them at all. But even those Western countries not experimenting were crippled by thoughts of “it can’t happen here”, and failed to acknowledge the spread of the virus even long after it had begun. For weeks they patted themselves on the back for preserving democratic liberties as COVID-19 spread undetected. When it became clear how much they had misjudged the situation and they finally locked down, it was too late.
Complacency is Deadly
There is no excuse that can make up for the complacency that poisoned Europe. The strongest explanation for the prolonged inaction and denial is the deeply engrained sense of superiority that pervades in Western Europe to this day. The generation that leads Europe grew up in a wealthy and modern continent looking down on a China they saw as a poor and dirty country far away on the other side of the world. Now China is more modern than Europe and sits firmly at the heart of the most globalized world in history. Yet it seems like those two old perceptions of China blinded Europe not just to the threats posed by the virus, but to its proven responses too.
Besides lockdowns and contact tracing, the most symbolic of these responses is the face mask. Common in East Asia since SARS, many countries in the region have insisted the mass wearing of face masks is essential to stopping the spread of coronavirus. The WHO disagrees, but Central Europe has followed the lead of Asia, not the WHO. In late March, the Czech Republic and Slovakia made use of face masks in public mandatory. And, in what may become one of the era’s most iconic images, Slovakia’s President wore an elegant matching face mask as she swore in the new government. It was an early symbol of the new world to come.
What About Germany’s Relative Success in Battling COVID-19?
Central Europe’s largest and richest country – conspicuously omitted until now – has perhaps been the biggest coronavirus success story of all. Germany is the EU’s most populous country but boasts a surprisingly low death rate at 64 per million, despite having the fourth most recorded cases in the world. This is thanks to a South Korean inspired model – mass testing and tracing of infected people’s contacts. So-called ‘test and trace’.
Though Germany’s decentralized government means individual states implement measures at different points and to varying degrees, the overall strategy from the beginning has been one inspired by the East Asian experience. Now Germany is even relaxing its lockdown, but not without a further measure – face masks. Like its Czech and Austrian neighbors, and against the advice of the WHO, German states are demanding citizens wear face masks in public. And joining Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are loosening up restrictions too. Central Europe — late to the pandemic — is slowly becoming the first to overcome it.
Post-Lockdown Means Social Distancing, Face Masks and Closed Borders
While the UK, Spain, and others in Western Europe still debate what emerging from lockdown will look like, Central Europe is already there. Social distancing, face masks, and closed borders. With idealism stripped back and replaced by pandemic realities, a new normal is developing in the heart of Europe. One that is built to last.
History books will not be writing about a great Central European experiment because there was none. With no other model to follow, Central Europe quickly looked to implement what had succeeded in East Asia. For the smaller, less well-off states it meant lockdowns and homemade face masks. For the larger and wealthier, mass testing and contact tracing. Either way, the result is the same. Thousands of deaths avoided, and probably a more stable long-term equilibrium.
History may not be so kind to Western European leaders. With greater means they achieved far less and with the consequences of the virus clear they waited too long to act. Some eventually realized their mistakes and belatedly began to implement necessary measures, while others have turned their countries into nationwide social experiments. And again, the result is the same. Tens of thousands of entirely avoidable deaths. Central Europe listened to Asia. Western Europe did not — and it is suffering the consequences.