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Just one region is home to all the nations with the worst COVID death rates

March 28, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC

The countries with the highest COVID-19 mortality at the moment are all in eastern Europe, and some are still resisting the stricter lockdowns their doctors say are needed to stem the spread of the virus.

Nine of the 10 worst-hit nations globally in terms of deaths per capita are located in the region, according to data compiled by Bloomberg that cover the past week. The performance marks a stark turnaround from the early days of the disease, when the continent’s east suffered far fewer fatalities than places like the U.K. and Spain.

The poor performance is due to several factors—from the slow pace politicians have acted during this latest wave to stuttering vaccination programs and dilapidated health-care systems. There’s also growing opposition to the restrictions across Europe as a whole. Germany was forced into a U-turn on Wednesday over plans to lock down more tightly at Easter.

Poland, the European Union’s largest eastern economy, is struggling to contain a record spike in new cases of the virus. But expanded measures announced Thursday—including shutting nurseries—fell short of a full-blown lockdown even as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that the health-care system risks being overrun.

“Poland is at its worst point in the pandemic,” Morawiecki told reporters. “We need to bring this third wave under control so we’re in a better trend two or three weeks from now.”

While the government is hoping to avoid tougher restrictions by boosting its vaccination drive, less than a tenth of the 38 million population has been inoculated so far. Deaths, which rank 12th globally on a per-capita basis, hit the highest level since December on Wednesday and now exceed 50,000.

A rapid vaccine rollout isn’t a bulletproof solution either. Hungary, which has immunized its citizens more quickly than almost any other EU state, became the planet’s most lethal COVID-19 hotspot this week.

Along with Morawiecki, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other leaders have frequently blamed the EU’s stumbling approach to vaccines for their failure to bring the pandemic under control. The bloc’s leaders will discuss the situation at a summit on Thursday.

Harsher lockdown

Hungary signaled its plan to reopen schools may be delayed to April 12 at the earliest. The country is waiting until at least 2.5 million people, roughly a quarter of its population, have been vaccinated, Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said Thursday.

“Since more than 80% of deaths are among older people, fatalities may drop radically once the elderly are vaccinated,” he told a news conference.

There was no mention of a harsher lockdown that doctors are advocating. On the contrary: The government is discussing a possible easing of rules for store openings.

Some eastern European countries are stricter, imposing curfews and travel bans. The Czech Republic, which has suffered more than most parts of the region, is set to prolong a state of emergency on Friday.

But the fear is that others aren’t doing enough. While Poland’s Morawiecki said COVID wards are at 70% capacity, other measures unveiled Thursday by his government appeared to be very minor—including closing large furniture and building-construction stores for two weeks, and requesting that people limit their Easter travel.

—With assistance from Barbara Sladkowska.