Politicizing the pandemic: Poland’s response to COVID-19

How Poland’s government and the ruling conservative PiS party have used the coronavirus pandemic in their quest to secure more power

At midnight on 15 March 2020, Poland responded to the increasing speed of the global spread of the coronavirus and closed its national borders. Since then the government has progressively expanded the social distancing measures, shutting down all stores except those deemed essential, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, outlawing gatherings of more than two people, and recently prohibiting appearing in public spaces without gloves and face masks. Yet despite these restrictions the current government, led by the conservative PiS (Law and Justice) party, is pushing for presidential elections to take place in May, dismissing the health and economic risks these elections would inherently pose, and changing the constitutional requirements to be able to conduct them. The Polish Constitution of 1997, among other stipulations, forbids enacting any changes to the electoral process and institutions so close to the elections. Thus, the current proposals of PiS have immediately put the rule of law and democracy in Poland under serious pressure

Using the reported low numbers of cases of coronavirus in Poland and the corresponding deaths (9856 infected and 401 deaths, as of 21 April), the ruling PiS party is praising its own handling of the current health crisis. However, the politicised and idealised version of this national response to the pandemic is far from representative. Not much is said officially about the topic of the published numbers having little to do with reality: as of 21 April the number of tests conducted in Poland was only 5,397 per million citizens, compared to over 50,000 and 30,000 in countries such as Luxemburg or Estonia. Additionally, any deaths of patients who tested positive but had other illnesses that contributed to the patient’s death are NOT considered or counted as victims of the virus.

Recently the PiS party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, once again publicly criticised the EU and its inadequate response in the context of the COVID-19, thus further exacerbating the separatist and nationalist tendencies of his right-wing supporters. In fact, the pandemic has been manipulated to glorify the PiS conservative agenda, and demonise not only the EU and its institutions, but also many values and ideologies it is associated with, such as multiculturalism, tolerance, and international solidarity. In a church in Silesian capital Wroclaw, in one of his pre-Easter sermons a priest claimed the virus to be a punishment from God for the country’s attempts to liberalise its same-sex partnership laws, labelled by him as ‘the rainbow plague’, a term that has since often been used throughout Polish society when talking about the LGBTQI community. Jews, leftists, feminists, and foreigners have all also been blamed for the virus in a variety of conspiracy theories. Even the people on the frontlines, those directly dealing with the pandemic, such as doctors and nurses, have been accused of incompetence and thus adding to the spread of the virus. This omits mentioning the fact that basic medical supplies, such as surgical gloves, masks, or respirators, have been scarce, and healthcare employees themselves are largely limited in their ability to undergo tests for COVID-19. Sanepid, the Polish Centre for Disease Control, has been practically granted a monopoly in conducting the tests, often rejecting people showing all of the symptoms, and conducting the tests selectively and in very small numbers.

Because of the State’s refusal to implement an extensive assistance programme to help people who in growing numbers are becoming unemployed, as well small-business owners, the most vulnerable sections of the Polish population are now living in debilitating fear: without State-wide implemented relief they will likely be without means to survive within a few months. Sadly, this is of little concern to PiS at the moment. The party, having a majority in both houses of Parliament, is now focused on validating its decision to not postpone the presidential elections, as well as using these abnormal times of a pandemic to put forward its political agenda. The latter is most clearly visible in the recent attempt of the PiS party to pass laws which criminalise sexual education while simultaneously restricting access to abortion. It is now pushing to make abortion illegal even if the pregnancy is the result of rape, or the fetus is showing clear symptoms of developmental complications. The laws, deliberated previously in Sejm (the Polish House of Representatives) in 2016 and 2018, were always met with an uproar among the population, resulting in the so-called ‘marches of the black umbrellas’ which united Polish women with surprising nonpartisan solidarity against the infringement on their reproductive rights. This time round, however, the situation is more complicated. The government has made it clear that any in-person protests or marches will be in direct violation of the new measures of social distancing because of COVID-19, and thus severely criminalised and penalised.

Still, the upcoming presidential elections are proving to be the major issue, already gaining the attention of various international governments and EU institutions. They consider the elections to be undemocratic, and, if indeed conducted, in clear violation of numerous constitutional and national, as well as international, legal stipulations. For example, the Polish Constitution of 1997 forbids changing the electoral rules within 6 months of planned elections. Now, not even a month before the planned first round of casting votes, the PiS party is pushing to change the voting system entirely to voting exclusively by mail, a method previously applied in a minimal number of special cases. The government is currently spending considerate sums of money to create the new political and institutional infrastructure to facilitate this new procedure. Such voting, called an outright ‘farce’ by the opposition, will not only contradict the rule of law, but is additionally vulnerable to vote buying, as well as voter fraud and falsification of results. Curiously, a recent law has brought the Polish Post Office under the control of the Ministry of Defence, shortly after giving post office employees (now potentially including the Polish military) an unencumbered right to open all official mail, even the usually privileged confidential correspondence in medical or legal matters. Additionally the new voting via mail will require each vote to be accompanied by a personally signed document with the full name and PESEL (Polish ID number) of the voting individual. This means that if the presidential election indeed takes place, it will be unconstitutional also on the account of the flagrant lack of anonymity, as each vote can be clearly and easily assigned to the specific person who cast it.

The opposition believes that the current government is pushing for the election for two simple reasons. Firstly, the more time passes under the present glaring dismissal of the population in need in the times of the pandemic, the less support there will be for the government in society. Therefore the likelihood of Andrzej Duda, the PiS candidate and current President of Poland, being re-elected, will also decrease with time. Secondly, many experts and politicians point out that once the new elections have taken place, the implementation of the state of exception, or even martial law in Poland due to the pandemic, could result in an indeterminate length of time of the rule of PiS, already holding the majority in the Sejm and the Senat, as under these special legal stipulations elections cannot be conducted. The reason why, according to the opposition, the measures have not been put forward yet, is also simple: at the end of April 2020 the Polish Sad Najwyzszy, or the High Court, the most important judicial body in Poland, was about to lose its last liberal Judge, Malgorzata Gersdorf. Once replaced with a PiS-friendly member, the High Court will be in full support of the ruling party, thus unlikely to stop or question any of its policies.

Will these developments in Poland, progressively resembling the conduct of President Orban and his rise to the now dictatorship-like rule in Hungary, be the last straw in separating the country from the European Union? With its current push for isolationist and nationalist policies, unless countered by the election of a liberal and pro-EU candidate as the new President of Poland, regrettably this appears to be a likely and very worrying scenario.


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