May 4, 2021 - 7:00am

While much of the media narrative around the European second and third waves is taken up by events in France, Germany and Italy, something very important has been happening in Eastern Europe. All the statistics show that, regardless of lockdown policy followed, it is in Eastern European countries that Covid-19 has been far and away most deadly – a pattern that has grown stronger in the past two months.

As of May 3rd — and excluding Gibraltar and San Marino for their tiny size — 10 European countries have coronavirus death rates of over 2000 people per million population: 8 of these are in Eastern Europe, added to by Belgium (2088 per million) and Italy (tenth out of ten, with 2001 per million).

Covid-19 death rates per million inhabitants in Europe as of end May 3rd,

Czechia (with the second worst death rate, of 2738 per million) has followed strict lockdowns all winter, with restrictions imposed in October and again in February. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s rule-by-decree was widely condemned when he introduced it in March 2020, and several severe lockdowns have followed – but the country currently has the worst death rate in the world, at 2895 per million. Bosnia (with the third worst rate, at 2620 per million) has also seen tight restrictions when Covid cases have risen.

What is behind this data? Regardless of the lockdown policies followed, it seems, something else has been going on – and some commonality is likely to exist among neighbouring countries with such severe mortality rates. More than lockdown policy, the thing that these Eastern European countries have in common is a comparatively low GDP compared to Western Europe.

It is not news that Covid is a disease which targets the poor. A Financial Times report into the “Covid Triangle” in East London — the boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Newham, where Covid-19 deaths and infections have been appallingly high — made it clear that many residents were too poor to stop working in spite of being symptomatic, while the cramped living conditions and requirements to stay at home helped the virus to spread between generations.

In South America, Brazil’s chaotic response is rightly condemned, but things have been little better in neighbouring Peru, which has had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world — as of May 3, Peru has 1,863 deaths per million and Brazil 1,907.

In sum, the data emerging from Eastern Europe would seem to confirm the data from East London and South America, that lockdowns often do not protect the poor. Otherwise it is hard to understand why wealthy Sweden has less than half the deaths of Hungary per capita. India too has had lockdowns, but this has not stopped a resurgence of Covid in recent weeks. In fact, the immune systems of poorer people are weakened by a decline in access to healthy food and anxiety caused by a collapse in earnings, making them doubtless more susceptible to the disease.

Toby Green’s book The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality is published by Hurst. 

Toby Green is a Professor of History at King’s College, London. The updated edition of his book, The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Thomas Fazi, is published by Hurst.