It’s been six months since the avalanche of Covid-spurred school closings, shelter-at-home, and lockdown orders. In March, no one would have predicted that Eastern European governments would be doing as well as they have at tackling the virus. But they have:
A) All Eastern Europeans flattened the curve better than all Western Europeans.
B) Populist and authoritarian incumbents embraced the world scientific consensus and implemented early measures/lockdowns.
C) Some liberal opposition parties and opinion leaders (in Bulgaria and Serbia, for e.g.) embraced minority scientific views (herd immunity) and/or conspiracies and turned into covid-deniers.
- Eastern European incumbents have thoroughly internalized three decades of criticism of their state’s capacity, efficiency, and policy implementation. They all expected that their health care systems would crack under the pressure immediately. They expected that shirking would be high because they know trust in institutions is low. They took measures super early and forcefully and it paid off.
- Eastern European party systems have long been weak on left-right differentiation (in some cases, even flipped), so neither the former Communist “left” nor the anti-Communist “right” have clear and hard positions on the “save lives vs. save the economy” dichotomy that dominates the discourse in older democracies. Political actors are unencumbered by previous ideological commitments and thus could choose whatever position they want on the covid policy debate.
- EU influence in structuring the covid cleavage: at the very start of the crisis, incumbents were worried about being shamed and possibly punished by the EU if they underperformed and didn’t flatten the curve, so they took swift measures
- Oppositions in countries with recent democratic backsliding were worried that incumbents would use the crisis to power grab or to beg for and then steal EU crisis funds and use them to further entrench themselves in power. As a result, some opposition quickly bought into conspiracies that the public health crisis wasn’t real, but manufactured for incumbents’ benefit.