Ten weeks ago, the daily number of coronavirus cases in Poland passed the 1,000 mark for the first time. They’ve been surging ever since — topping 20,000 in mid-November — and its health care workers are reeling.
“Before the coronavirus, at least I was able to get some rest between calls,” Marcin Dobkowski, a 33-year-old paramedic from Warsaw, told POLITICO. “Right now, it’s work non-stop.”
Dobkowski’s contract mandates that he work 192 hours a month, in 24-hour shifts broken up by three days of rest. But with the coronavirus decimating paramedics in Warsaw, Dobkowski says he’s getting just one day off between shifts.
“Many of my colleagues are down with the coronavirus or in quarantine, and we have to cover more calls over a bigger area to make up for less staff,” Dobkowski added.
With the country’s death toll hitting a record this week — reaching 637 on Thursday — alarm is growing that the country’s health care system is too underfunded and understaffed to tackle the pandemic. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the number of hospitalized patients has skyrocketed from around 2,000 in late September to over 22,000 by mid-November.
At the same time, the nationalist government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, is ruling out a new lockdown after the first one in the spring crippled the economy, which is now expected to contract between 3 percent and 4 percent this year.
The government’s reaction has been a gradual introduction of quasi-lockdown measures, which critics say should have been done much earlier. Restaurants and pubs are closed except for takeaway orders. Schools have moved to online teaching only, and gyms and swimming pools are also closed.
Public gatherings are limited to five people only — a measure that authorities have been unable to enforce during street demonstrations taking place nearly every day to protest against a court ruling toughening abortion rules.
Instead, the government is touting good news whenever it can find it.
“We can smile just a little bit,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told reporters on Tuesday, after Poland recorded the third consecutive daily fall in the number of infections to 19,152 — only to see the numbers rise again in the following days.
The problem is that the daily number of new cases says little, if anything, about Poland’s situation and where it’s headed, says Krzysztof Pyrć, a professor of molecular virology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
What does provide an insight — albeit not a pretty one — is the extremely high percentage of positive tests, Pyrć adds.
Often this share exceeds half of all people tested — giving Poland one of the highest positive test rates in the world. The World Health Organization recommended threshold for positive results is 5 percent.
“We don’t know the real picture of the epidemic because the high percentage of…