Something very strange is happening to the coronavirus in Poland right now. If we look at the number of new confirmed cases, we see a success story.
In mid November it seemed that the country was only days from a return to a full lockdown, which the government had announced would automatically happen if the country had more than 700 cases per million. Then, after reaching 674, the numbers began plummeting. It would seem that preventative measures (an expanded mask mandate; closing shopping malls; switching to remote learning for schools and universities; limiting ridership on public transportation; closing theaters, cinemas, museums, restaurants, and nightclubs; limiting shopping to essentials only) had worked. The dreaded “national quarantine” specified in the emergency COVID legislation was avoided.
But something wasn’t right with this picture. Hospitals were reporting that they continued to be overwhelmed, and the death rate continued to rise, then to decline only slightly this past week.
To some extent this was to be expected: fatalities lag behind reports of new cases because COVID kills with agonizing slowness. But it does seem odd that the disparity between these two charts is as large as it is, and that the health care workers on the front lines don’t seem to be witnessing significant improvements.
It is also counterintuitive that cases would be declining in the midst of the massive public protests of the Women’s Strike. Although the participants in that action are adhering to mask regulations, the lack of social distancing inevitably created a public health challenge. On November 11, for example, hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
These crowds are entirely understandable. Given the public health implications of the near total ban on abortion that sparked these protests, it makes sense to balance the risks. Nonetheless, those risks are real, and it would be surprising if these huge gatherings were followed by a decline in the number of cases.
It turns out that this discrepancy is quite easy to explain, and others following the data were quick to figure it out. To see what’s up, we need one more chart:
Donald Trump was appropriately ridiculed when he suggested that case numbers of COVID could be reduced by simply testing less. Well, it seems that the Polish government took that advice to heart. They ran fewer tests, found fewer cases, and avoided the national quarantine—problem solved!
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Yes, the PiS government scaled back its testing programs, but this has been accompanied by a growing reluctance among Poles to get tested. Journalists are confirming what I have heard anecdotally from friends: that people are afraid of being tested because a positive result would require them to go into quarantine. In other words, they are considering only the personal implications of a test, not the public-health considerations. An admittedly unscientific internet survey of 6,500 Poles asked whether they would get tested if they had COVID symptoms. The responses:
– 31%: Definitely yes
– 24%: Only if I felt really bad
– 22%: I don’t know—it would depend on many factors
– 23%: Definitely not
We Americans certainly have nothing to be proud of when it comes to our response to the pandemic, even if we set aside the unconscionable neglect of the problem by the Trump administration. It isn’t any consolation that people in other countries are doing just as badly, thought it does put our failings into a broader context. Poles do not have levels of absolute COVID denial comparable to the US. 74% of Poles surveyed in October consider the danger to be “serious” or “very serious,” compared to only 41% in the United States. 10% of Poles refused to believe in the existence of the pandemic, and another 8% said that it was real, but not dangerous. In another survey, 55% of Poles reported that they fear personally catching the disease, while 33% said that they did not. Somewhat incongruously, at least one survey showed the American figure to be precisely the same. One possible explanation for this (assuming it isn’t just an artifact of how the questions in different surveys were worded) is that fear of the personal consequences of COVID are comparable in our countries, but because the issue has become so politicized, it has become nearly impossible for Republicans to take the pandemic seriously as a social problem, while equally impossible for Democrats to dismiss the gravity of the situation.
Everything from wearing a mask to supporting public health measures has become a partisan issue here. In Poland, on the other hand, the fact that COVID is a public danger is not disputed by any of the major political parties. While complaints from businesspeople have been heard in Poland, these are directed against the PiS government. In the absence of coordinated support from a major political party, their protests have been tiny. Insofar as opposition politicians have tried to ally themselves with those hurt financially by the pandemic, this has taken the form of calls for more financial aid, and not a denial of the problem itself or a false dichotomy of public health vs. the economy. Political debates about the pandemic response have focused on whether the government’s response has been adequate—not over whether there should be a response.
At first glance this might seem like a good thing for the Poles. Without the intense politicization, we don’t see a corollary to the American pattern in which half the country tries to trivialize the pandemic as a matter of principle. But there’s a flip side to this: neither do we see the enthusiastic commitment to public health from any political orientation. I wonder how many Democrats in the US would be as diligent in wearing masks and supporting lockdown restrictions if it hadn’t become a way to demonstrate their ideological affinities? In Poland, where the political considerations don’t follow the same pattern, we can find careless mask use across the political spectrum. More important, we can see more space for anyone (on the right or the left) to treat COVID as a personal issue, not a social one. If we take that stance, it makes sense to resist testing. After all, a positive result won’t lead to any particular course of treatment, because only in the most severe cases do the new treatments even apply. Someone with moderate symptoms (or no symptoms at all) has no personal reason to be tested—one does so because of a sense of social responsibility. Or rather, that’s how it works in Poland. In the US, whether we do so has become an issue of identity, not altruism. Perhaps there are more Democrats in the US than there are altruists in Poland.
This issue is about to become even more urgent as the vaccines roll out. While those who get a vaccine will enjoy personal immunity, they will balance that against (likely unfounded) fears about the vaccine’s safety. The main reason it is so urgent to set those fears aside and get the vaccine is that only widespread immunization will achieve that much-abused concept, “herd immunity.” Fortunately, in an October survey carried out across 19 countries (constituting a majority of the world’s population), over 70% of respondents said that they would get a vaccine once one was available.
However, a survey released today in Poland shows that a mere third of the population is likely to get vaccinated, compared to nearly half who will not (the remainder are undecided). The most recent polls in the US show that half the population will get vaccinated (almost two thirds of the Democrats, but minorities of Republicans and independents).
If these figures turn out to be correct, then the US will struggle with COVID longer than it needs to, while Poles will continue to grapple with the disease for the foreseeable future. No amount of statistical gamesmanship will change that reality.