“With some kind of ‘war economy planning’, they could be made to churn out the required gear for reducing mortality rates caused by COVID-19,” he said in an email interview from his home in the Danish capital. “Much of the textile sector is essentially idle as there are no orders and some of it has already kicked into gear and is mass producing masks and medical overalls.

“However, in the absence of some national level planning apparatuses, the risk is that we will have patchwork industrial conversion of this kind, rather than a more systemic one. It is time to let go of that ‘anti-communist’ rejection of planning, as this is survival we are talking about.”

He added: “Without industrial planning the US would have stood no chance against Japan and Germany during World War II and wartime planning did not translate into authoritarianism after the war. On the contrary, it ushered in a strong labour union movement and more egalitarian income policies. The same is true of Britain.” 

Although coronavirus cases remain relatively low in Central and Southeast Europe compared with those in Western Europe, health systems are starting to feel the strain, with hospitals appealing to the public for protective equipment and more and more medical staff infected by the virus.

Experts say one reason cases are still quite low is that countries in the region are several weeks behind Western Europe in terms of infections.

As of Monday evening, Poland had recorded over 2,000 cases, with 31 deaths. Fatalities in Czech Republic and Hungary stood at 23 and 15, respectively. Slovakia had no deaths.

In the Balkans, Romania has been worst affected, with 50 deaths as of Monday evening. Serbia had 16 deaths, Albania 11, Bosnia and Herzegovina nine, Bulgaria eight, North Macedonia seven and Croatia six.

It is time to let go of that ‘anti-communist’ rejection of planning, as this is survival we are talking about.

– Cornel Ban

Like most nations in Europe with the exception of Germany, countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain are far from prepared for the spike in intensive care cases that the pandemic is bound to bring, Ban said.

The main reason is that “pretty much everyone has bought into the self-destructive neoliberal ‘new public management’ approaches on how to organise medical care and intensive care in particular”, he said.

By “new public management”, Ban was referring to a trend that started in the West in the 1980s: to use private-sector models to run public services and government agencies.

“Consequently, they ended up with vulnerable ‘just in time’ medical supply chains,” he said. Meanwhile, health systems in former communist countries have their own unique vulnerabilities. 

“The collapse of the socialist-era pharma industry and the underfunding (at best) of public pharma research institutes, combined with a lack of minimal logistical planning capacities at the level of central governments, means the Central and Eastern European countries’ capacity to source even the simplest gear — such as masks, medical overalls or disinfectants — is crushed,” he said.

Ban noted that difficulties in sourcing even basic medical supplies became immediately apparent once producer countries started hoarding materials to meet domestic needs. Meanwhile, global transport routes were increasingly disrupted due to the virus. 

“In some countries that have very low medical care spending such as Romania, some regional hospitals, designated to deal with COVID-19 patients, fell apart almost as soon as they received the first patients because of lack of testing kits and gear for the medical personnel,” he recalled. 

Chronic low spending on healthcare in the three decades since the fall of communism has led, among other things, to the mass migration of nurses and doctors to Western Europe and beyond, leaving health systems in the region even more vulnerable to the pandemic, he said.

Countries in the region tend to have fewer fully equipped critical care beds and medical staff trained to treat the patients who need them. They also have a far lower capacity to test for coronavirus, with fewer laboratories able to analyse samples. 

Finally, hundreds of thousands of emigrant workers from countries such as Poland and Romania have returned home from Western nations — with many potentially bringing the virus with them, Ban said.

In the case of Romania, this is especially concerning since the main destination countries for emigrants have been Italy and Spain — the two countries in Europe worst hit by COVID-19. 

But Ban said he was most concerned about the availability of ventilators in coming weeks when countries in the region are likely to record tens of thousands of infections. 

“The (mostly) German, Swiss, Dutch and American companies that make ventilators have very low production volumes given the demand and do not seem keen to move production capacities to the east,” he said.

“To top it off, the car industry seems unlikely to convert its capacities to ventilator production in time for the weeks ahead, when we will see tens of thousands of cases in Central and Eastern Europe.”

He concluded: “The results, I fear, will be tragic.”


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