Not allowing the Italian scenario to be repeated, flattening the curve, maintaining the effectiveness of the health care system are the objectives facing the countries struggling with the Coronavirus epidemic, including Poland.
Even before the appearance of the first COVID-19 cases, on March 2nd, the Polish Parliament adopted a law on special solutions related to the prevention and control of coronavirus spread. The adopted legal regulations then became the basis for the government to act in the following weeks.
The first case of COVID-19 in Poland was recorded two days after the vote of the new law in the Parliament. After three weeks, the number of patients increased to 1051 and 14 fatalities (as of 25 March). The Minister of Health Łukasz Szumowski predicts that the number of coronavirus infected people may reach even several thousand in the coming days.
In order to slow down the spread of the disease, on March 14th, an epidemic emergency was introduced in Poland, and with it, public gatherings of over 50 people were banned, clubs, pubs, and restaurants were closed down, and the activity of shopping malls was restricted. The activity of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural entities is also banned. Furthermore, activities related to the organization, promotion, or management of events such as fairs, exhibitions, congresses, conferences, or meetings were prohibited. Restrictions also apply to religious gatherings. There was also a limit of 50 persons.
In addition to regulations to prevent large human gatherings, movement restrictions have been introduced. International air and rail connections were suspended, and border controls were restored. Polish citizens returning from abroad were subjected to a two-week house quarantine while the borders were closed for foreigners. The restrictions do not only concern the transport of goods.
Since 16 March, schools, kindergartens, crèches, and universities have been closed in Poland. After a week, remote teaching was resumed.
On 20 March, the state of the epidemic was introduced in Poland. It is a legal situation introduced in a given area in connection with the occurrence of an epidemic in order to take certain anti-epidemic and preventive actions to minimize the effects of the epidemic. This new ordinance of the Minister of Health maintains previous restrictions and introduces new regulations facilitating the fight against the epidemic.
These provisions provide for the possibility of prohibiting certain activities, restricting movement around the country, as well as creating closed zones – so-called zero zones or buffer zones. The state of the epidemic also allows for temporary restriction or prohibition of trade in and use of certain goods or food products; temporary restriction of the operation of specific institutions or workplaces, the obligation to perform sanitary procedures; an order to make property, premises, land and means of transport available for anti-epidemic activities provided for in anti-epidemic plans; the obligation to carry out preventive vaccinations.
In order to prepare the health care system for the expected growing number of patients requiring hospitalization, 19 medical institutions in Poland were transformed into infectious disease hospitals, which were designed to receive people suspected of coronavirus infection. In each region of the country, at least one of the existing hospitals has been transformed into an infectious disease hospital. Measures have been taken to ensure that at least 10% of the places in the transformed facilities are respiratory beds.
With the increasing number of cases, the Polish government introduced further restrictions. On 24 March, new movement restrictions were implemented. It is only allowed to go from home to work to do the necessary shopping and volunteer work to fight the coronavirus. Walking is only possible with social distance. At the same time, penalties for breaking the quarantine have been increased.
Above mentioned restrictions were introduced in order to reduce the dynamic spread of infections in the Polish society as well as to lessen the burden on hospitals, with the rapidly growing number of cases requiring hospitalization. Observing the previous disease dynamics in China, then in Italy and currently in Spain and the United States, it is clear that none of the health care systems is prepared for such a rapidly growing number of patients who require ventilation in the severe course of infection.
There is a lack not only of ventilators but also of basic protective measures for medical personnel. Also, in Poland, there are visible deficiencies in this respect. At present, with a relatively small number of patients requiring connection to a ventilator, the main problem for Polish hospitals is insufficient access to protective means for the personnel of masks, suits, and protective glasses. Another critical problem is the number of coronavirus tests and the lack of testing of medical personnel. As a result, a few hospitals have recently been quarantined due to the finding of coronavirus in the medical personnel or patients returning from abroad who, contrary to the recommendations, went to hospital emergency instead of specialized infectious disease hospitals.
It is currently difficult to predict whether the measures taken are sufficient. The further course of the epidemic will undoubtedly reveal new problems of the underfunded health care system in Poland. The coronavirus epidemic also means significant consequences for the Polish economy. Currently, as a result of restrictions, many industries are suffering real economic losses, including passenger transport, the tourist sector, and closed restaurants, bars, pubs, and shopping malls. The Polish currency (PLN) has also been significantly weakened. In order to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis, work was undertaken to develop an aid package for entrepreneurs. In the coming days, solutions in this respect will be debated in the Polish Parliament.
It is also worth mentioning that Poland, in the time of an epidemic, is also undergoing a presidential campaign before the elections scheduled for 10 May. So far, no state of emergency has been declared, which according to the provisions of the Constitution, allows postponing the date of the Polish presidential elections. In the public debate, there are voices from the opposition, publicists, constitutionalists, but also epidemiologists indicating a potential threat resulting from maintaining the May date of the presidential elections.
- Rozporządzenie Ministra Zdrowia z dnia 13 marca 2020 r. w sprawie ogłoszenia na obszarze Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej stanu zagrożenia epidemicznego, Dz.U. 2020 poz 433.
- Rozporządzenie Ministra Zdrowia z dnia 20 marca 2020 r. w sprawie ogłoszenia na obszarze Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej stanu epidemii, Dz.U. 2020 poz. 491;
- Rozporządzenie Ministra Zdrowia z dnia 24 marca 2020 r. zmieniające rozporządzenie w sprawie ogłoszenia na obszarze Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej stanu epidemii, Dz.U. 2020 poz. 522.
*** The author is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw, Poland ***