New coronavirus cases decline across emerging Europe but the epidemic’s not over yet

New coronavirus cases decline across emerging Europe but the epidemic’s not over yet
Chart key countries: Turkey (green), Iran (pink), Russia (orange), Poland (blood red), Kazakhstan (dark green).
By bne IntelliNews May 29, 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is still spreading across the world, but the centre of the pandemic is now in the Americas, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said, while many countries in emerging Europe can now claim to have defeated the virus as daily new cases dwindle or fall to zero. 

In response, states across the region are gradually easing restrictions, while carefully monitoring the situation to guard against a second wave. 

The number of new coronavirus cases in emerging Europe appears to have passed its peak, though numbers are still growing strongly in some countries. 

Total cases in the emerging Europe region reached 865,354 on May 28, with the largest numbers in Russia, Turkey and Iran. Source: WHO

Slovenia declared the epidemic was over on May 15, and 10 days later the Montenegrin government said the country is now coronavirus-free, as there are no longer any active cases. Other countries including Croatia and the Baltic states are reporting almost no new cases daily. 

Even Russia, the site of by far the region’s biggest outbreak — it had 379,051 as of May 28 according to WHO data, more than double the 159,797 in second-ranked Turkey — has seen a fall in the number of daily new cases from over 10,000 in the earlier pat of the month to the low 8,000s in recent days. 

Russia now has more than twice as many coronavirus cases as Turkey. Source: WHO

Worryingly, a third of Russians (32.8%) believe that the danger of the coronavirus epidemic is exaggerated, or they consider it to be an invention of interested parties, according to a study conducted by the Higher School of Economics (HSE). Researchers note that the behaviour of the sceptics is fundamentally different from those that see a danger. Of those who do not believe in the epidemic, 43% visit relatives and more than half (54%) go for walks. Three-quarters (74.22%) of sceptical respondents are convinced that there was no need for a self-isolation regime.

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov has taken on criticism of the Russian government’s anti-crisis measures, saying comparisons between the level of spending in Russia and that of other nations are unfair, according to reports on May 27.

President Vladimir Putin announced the third aid package on May 12 that added significantly more spending on the social sphere and support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Russia’s three anti-crisis packages cumulatively have cost RUB3 trillion ($42bn), or roughly 2.6% of GDP, according to the minister. Critics say that Russia’s support is very modest compared to countries spending upwards of 10-20% of GDP to bail out their populations and businesses. However, Reshetnikov believes a more accurate metric of Russia’s stimulus is its budget deficit.

While other countries have offered direct subsidies to businesses and cash payments to the people, much of Russia’s aid is in the form of tax deferrals, loans and guarantees that will still have an impact on the budget even if they are not direct transfers of cash.

Hundreds of new cases daily 

There is also cause for concern outside Russia, as several other countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are still reporting hundreds of new cases every day. In Belarus, Poland and Kazakhstan, the rate of increase has not grown, but neither has it declined. 

Belarus now has the largest number of coronavirus cases in CEE after Russia. Over the past weeks, the nation's health authorities have reported over 900 new coronavirus cases on a daily basis. The total number of coronavirus cases in Belarus has grown to 39,858, while 219 people have died as of May 28. At the same time, leading media outlets have speculated about censorship of the official data over the past two months.

Belarus has overtaken other CEE countries with major outbreaks, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. Source: WHO

Belarus is now among the five European countries reporting the highest cumulative numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases over the past 14 days, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the regional director for Europe at the World Health Organisation (WHO), said at a media briefing on May 28.

Poland has the next highest tally of infections in the emerging Europe region at 22,473 as of May 28. Despite the continuing high number of new infections, Warsaw relaxed restrictions on May 27, allowing people to go out without face masks, removing limits on how many people can shop or dine at restaurants, and reopening open-air fitness grounds, playgrounds and hotels. 

“Most of Poland shows a declining trend of new cases,” Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski told a press conference, while Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Poland has “controlled the pandemic much more efficiently than the world’s richest countries”.

However, some experts expressed doubt on the timing of the easing, as Poland’s coronavirus cases are not showing a downward tendency, having remained flat at roughly 300-400 cases daily for weeks now. “Some people might think we are past the worst now but in reality, we are still in the same situation [of the number of cases flat rather than decreasing],” epidemiologist Agnieszka Szuster-Ciesielska told private broadcaster TVN24.

Industrial clusters 

In several countries in the region there have been major outbreaks in factories and industrial centres. 

Kazakhstan had 6,969 cases as of May 29, with as many as 935 of them workers at the giant Tengiz oilfield. Chevron is now demobilising around 20,000 workers, or two-thirds of the workforce, at Tengiz, CEO Mike Wirth told investors during a virtual annual shareholders meeting on May 27.

The critical workers who remain at the remote site have seen their housing quarters spread out, while testing and personal protective equipment requirements have been boosted. “It’s a big project, a lot of people in a difficult and demanding location,” Wirth said. “It’s a big job, and I think they’re doing a fine job of dealing with a moving situation.”

While Tengiz and Kazakhstan’s other largest oilfields are remote from major population centres such as Nur-Sultan and Almaty, once cases are imported it is easy for them to spread. At Tengiz thousands of workers are employed and many of them live in nearby camps. 

Previously, Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO) tightened lockdown measures at the Karachaganak oilfield after the first coronavirus infection was confirmed among its personnel on May 22. 

The chief sanitary doctor in Western Kazakhstan Region, where the oilfield is based, ordered an effective 7pm-7am curfew at Karachaganak workers’ camps and barred vehicles from entering and leaving the field. The doctor’s order also requires all workers arriving at the field to pass coronavirus tests.

Kazakhstan now has almost the same number of cases as the Czech Republic, but new cases are rising fast. Source: WHO

In Belarus, around 100 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed among workers building the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP), Alexei Likhachev, CEO of Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, said on May 26. Russia’s Atomstroyexport is the prime contractor in the project.

Earlier this month, Poland registered a large outbreak among miners in the southern region of Upper Silesia, Poland’s coal production hub. Work in five coal mines had to be put on hold in order to curb the spread of the virus.

Romania’s Arctic, the local subsidiary of Turkish group Arcelik, temporarily closed its refrigerators factory in Gaesti, after dozens of its employees tested positive for coronavirus. There was a smaller outbreak at a textile factory in Focsani, where 21 Sri Lankan workers contracted the virus. 

Serbia too has seen outbreaks at both the Yura Corporation factory in Leskovac and an outbreak of 53 cases in Vranje, which the authorities said was linked to a single factory. 

Economic necessity 

In another worrying development, cases are growing fast in some of the poorest countries in the region that are least able to deal with a public health crisis, but at the same time lack the financial firepower to carry the economy through a strict lockdown. 

Armenia has been reporting several hundred cases daily, leading to fears that the country could be run out of intensive care beds. 

May 25 alone brought 452 new cases, the highest single-day growth in the number of cases yet experienced. The previous day, Health Minister Arsen Torosyan said that only 26 intensive care beds for coronavirus patients were free, Public Radio of Armenia reported. A makeshift hospital has been set up in a cavernous, Soviet-era sports hall in case existing hospitals are overwhelmed. 

The surge in new cases came after Yerevan lifted the lockdown a few weeks ago; government officials have frankly stated that prolonging the lockdown without causing irreparable damage to the economy was not something they saw as achievable. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on May 24 that the virus was spreading rapidly in industrial enterprises, which together with services companies accounted for 75-80% of new cases. 

As of mid-May, Armenia’s health ministry recorded the country’s infection rate, or ‘R’ number, at 1.4, meaning each person infected with COVID-19 was on average spreading their infection to 1.4 people. Such a rate means the virus spread can become exponential.

Tajikistan only reported its first case one month ago, though the country was believed to have had infections before they were formally confirmed on April 30. By May 28, it had reported 3,424 cases, more than most countries in Central and Southeast Europe. 

Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, also has a considerably larger outbreak than other countries from Southeast Europe except for Romania. It now has more than three times as many cases as countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Croatia.

Continued growth in the epidemics in Armenia and Moldova contrast with the slowdowns in Bosnia, Bulgaria and Croatia.