By Patrycja Pendrakowska
Political decisions behind COVID-19 are increasingly becoming an art of managing social fear. Despite the fact that Poland still registers over 300 new cases of COVID-19 per day, the government decided to ease the lockdown in the wake of the economic slump.
This is by no means an isolated case as many Central European countries cannot afford the lockdown much longer, as the budget revenues are shrinking. However, the threat of a subsequent epidemic outbreak remains and the government is learning how to control the social fear. The Polish Minister of Health is calming the public down claiming that the government has gathered tools to control the spread of the virus.
The Polish healthcare system was not prepared for an outbreak, and it had to face multiple challenges, similarly as the substantial part of the world. During the first weeks, medical staff lacked sanitizers, protective garments and masks. Politicians lacked legislative acts and economists worried about the shrinking economy. However, in the wake of the upcoming presidential elections, which were ultimately not held on the planned date, the ruling camp struggled to maintain their credibility at all costs. As a result, the administration took many rash decisions including buying medical equipment, which didn’t fulfill certifications (from China), implementing a variety of ad hoc rules at an express pace and failed in its attempt to organize a chaotic postal ballot for the presidential elections.
The lack of procedures and a strategy in the case of a pandemic led to legislative chaos. Quite often, the speeches of the Prime Minister (executive power) became a source of interpretation of the newly introduced rules. The legal chaos surrounding the epidemic might leave a variety of long-term effects on the Polish civil society. On the one hand it can lead to larger consent to ad hoc fixed decisions and legislations, which in the long run, can lead to recourse from freedom. On the other hand, it can lead to wider criticism of the ruling party, which executes arbitrary power without the social consensus. Indeed, emergencies foster grips of power around the world.
At the turn of March and April Polish policymakers decided to implement a draconian lockdown. Citizens couldn’t leave their homes without a special purpose related to the “basic necessities of life” like going to a store or taking a short walk, or for necessary work-related reasons. Some of these regulations were legitimate, but some are still believed to be very absurd, i.e. the ones stating that a husband and wife living in one household should keep a distance of 2 meters while walking in an open space. The rigor of some of the newly established rules that seemed to be irrational led to a series of criticisms assessing them as a battering ram against the social credibility and responsibility of the state.
Moreover, the Polish government bought medical equipment from China that didn’t fulfill domestic restrictions. The medical equipment was transported by one of the biggest planes in the world – the Antonov Mrija – and was greeted in person by PM Mateusz Morawiecki and broadcasted in the public media. However, in the end, this purchase led to the loss of image of the ruling party. Not only were the masks of a low quality, but large profits were allegedly made by fly-by-night companies managed by entrepreneurs close to the political establishment.
Due to the implemented restrictions many stores, companies and restaurants had to close down and some of them never reopened. Entrepreneurs claim that the burden of paying rent and the threat of less customers using their services in the aftermath of the epidemic played a huge role in the decision process. On top of that many business-owners became sceptical about the support offered by the government and many considered the new legal provisions branded as the Financial Shield (Tarcza antykryzysowa) as incomprehensible. Firstly, the financial aid does not meet the needs of business. Secondly, it seems that businesses do not believe in the promises made by the government. Many companies prefer to close down rather than go through all the procedures. Thirdly, many articles from the Financial Shield are not easy to understand even for lawyers. In the times of crisis, such a situation might discriminate smaller enterprises, which cannot afford the expensive cost of professional and legal consultations. In the wake of long periods of waiting for financial help and the inadequacy of the government’s support, the business milieu organized a protest march on May 16. However, their postulates were met with tear gas and arrests. This leads to another challenge: how to secure democratic participation in demonstrations if displaying dissatisfactions to certain policies through public gatherings is banned? A solution could be to create public platforms for discussions with officials and policymakers, which wouldn’t be dependent on Silicon’s Valley social media.
Currently, those who decided to reopen their restaurants and services must stick to strict rules including social distancing and wearing masks. The HoReCa sector (Hotels, Restaurants and Cafe) has been one of the worse hit by the crisis. In the eyes of the politicians this sector requires special treatment as it offers work to many people especially during holiday periods. The government wants to launch a new financial aid project, which would attract Poles to spend their summer vacations in Poland. A sum of approximately USD 250 (PLN 1000) would be given to families, who decide on domestic tourism. The holiday project named as 1000+ is still being discussed, however it doesn’t cover vast groups of employees without a proper employment contract, which stirs controversies over its equality and fairness. One shouldn’t forget that the Law and Justice party is famous for implementing many social benefit projects that donate money to people, i.e. they introduced a program 500+ a month for every child (USD 125). This strategy secured a vast political endorsement for the ruling camp, which has lasted since 2015. On the other side of the fence, domestic holidays are in line with the global movement of giving special treatment and preferences to the national economy.
Last but not least, the epidemic revealed strong social inequalities and divisions. Children from poor backgrounds have limited access to computers and thus difficulties in participating in online-classes. Domestic violence is allegedly on the rise and people live in fear of losing their jobs. Moreover, women working from home must manage a variety of professional duties, as well as monitor their children’s progress with online classes. Many feel overwhelmed by the situation, and it seems that women are affected the most. The social cost of the epidemic is a universal challenge for all societies. However, transparent procedures, an effective health system and social help is of an uttermost significance.
All in all, many social phenomena and processes that happen in Poland are very similar to the ones taking place globally. The universality of challenges that societies are facing in the wake of the pandemic should lead to a wider exchange of data, knowledge and experiences. In the case of Poland, the government should reconsider collecting data on the situation of Polish families and the experience of entrepreneurs in order to prepare for potential future epidemics. On the legal level Poland should rethink its strategy of putting the country into lockdown. Rash and absurd decisions may seriously undermine the credibility of those in power. Consequently, the legislature, with the support of national security experts and medical staff, should prepare a range of legislative acts for future situations involving the epidemic. Transparent procedures, reasonable leadership and a socially recognized strategy are perfect tools serving the management of social fear.The views expressed above belong to the author(s).