On 1 April, without any apparent warning, thousands of Polish citizens aged 40-59 were invited to book their first COVID-19 vaccine dose. This, despite the fact that many older residents were yet to be vaccinated. Vaccines for the 40-59 age group had initially been expected to start in mid-May. The Chief of the Chancellery would soon admit that this was yet another government error. True to form, the last week in Poland has seen glitches, general disorganisation, and more warning signs that the country’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. Poles have become all-too familiar with a story of gross government incompetence and meaningless apologies. Meanwhile, over 50 000 Poles have lost their lives to the virus. With an important mayoral election round the corner, Warsaw must be held to account for its fatal mismanagement.
Cruel glitch and distribution failures
Word of the newly-available vaccination appointments spread quickly, especially after Polish MP, Adrian Zandberg, asked the minister co-responsible for the vaccination programme, Chief of the Chancellery Michał Dworczyk, to clarify the situation. Dworczyk’s response seemed to suggest that all was as planned: “Due to a slowdown in vaccination bookings amongst the 60+ age group we have taken the decision to activate bookings for the 40-59 age group.”
Naturally, Poland’s 40-59 year olds began flocking to the government’s platform to book their jabs, which perhaps unsurprisingly caused the website to crash. TVN reported that hospital staff were taken by total surprise when these bookings came in. Perhaps most alarmingly, the Health Minister, Adam Niedzielski, was also unaware of this development.
The ongoing uncertainty called for a press conference, in which Dworczyk admitted that, though the release of vaccination appointments for 40-59 year olds had been intentional, the appointments should not have been made available for April. Following the first of many government apologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dworczyk assured us that the mistake would be rectified, and appointments rescheduled.
A glitch befitting April Fool’s? Any space for humour soon disappears when one considers the grim backdrop of hundreds of deaths a day, a ravaged economy and an overwhelmed healthcare system.
It is important to stress that this latest glitch is reflective of the wider chaos in Warsaw’s management of its vaccination programme. Two countries leading the way in terms of vaccination rollout are the United Kingdom and the US. Despite differences in the scale and logistics of the operations, the approach has been similar in both countries. In the UK, Westminster set out a detailed plan outlining which groups were to be vaccinated when. Crucially, the country’s National Health Service has achieved the seemingly impossible by distributing every vaccine dose on time.
Even in the US, notorious for its lack of universal healthcare, President Biden has found ways to accelerate the national vaccination programme. And there are several other examples of successful COVID-19 management. The common threads that bind them together are organisation and access to vaccines. Poland has had the privilege of the latter, but government organisation has been non-existent. Lost Polish lives have been the consequence.
Vaccine distribution remains a chronic problem. Nowhere near enough vaccines have been sent to big cities which means that in Warsaw, for example, people have been forced to get appointments in smaller cities and towns hundreds of kilometres away. This has placed huge pressure on people who do not own cars, and the disabled. The distribution issue has been compounded by the lack of clarity in communicating the order in which citizens should be vaccinated. April’s system glitch is not the first time that ministers have changed their minds on the order of vaccinations. In February, the government announced it was vaccinating teachers with the AstraZeneca vaccine. The government vaccination plan had previously excluded teachers from its priority groups. Adding teachers to the list was a welcomed U-turn, but there were ramifications to this chaotic policy: exceptional pressure on healthcare workers and local governments who, within days, had to make the necessary administrative and logistical changes.
The series of government U-turns has exacerbated the health crisis in recent weeks. Like other European countries, Poland has been ravaged by the UK variant of the coronavirus. In the worst-affected region of Silesia, helicopters and planes have been put on standby to transport the sick to other regions, in the likely case that local hospitals here become overwhelmed.
And then there’s the plight of the nation’s healthcare workers. Despite being overworked and underpaid they have done everything they can to help ease the situation. Now, as a result of government mismanagement, ambulance workers and hospital staff are struggling to find beds for COVID patients.
This government is responsible for the disastrous situation in Polish hospitals. Back in 2017, when healthcare workers went on strike demanding higher pay and improved working conditions, the government showed doctors and nurses complete disregard, exemplified by the words of one ruling party MP: “they should emigrate!”. No concession was granted to healthcare workers, who are now bearing the brunt of a pandemic that has rocked working communities the hardest.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has been pointing fingers, looking for anyone beside his government to blame for the disorderly vaccination programme. There is no getting away from the fact that his government has had since December last year, when they knew a vaccine would soon be available, to prepare for its distribution. Above all, they have failed to prepare for a third wave in Poland, despite knowing of the British mutation for months.
Meaningless apologies and pivotal elections
Back in July 2020, Morawiecki proclaimed victory against the virus: “We should not fear this virus anymore; it is on the retreat.” Faced with the undeniable reality of his failure to manage COVID-19, he recently apologised for these remarks, admitting they were “misguided”.
It’s been a strange week with not one but two government figures apologising for blatant errors. Apologies are a rare sight in Polish politics. But these apologies are close to meaningless. The incompetence of both Morawiecki and Dworczyk has cost human lives and many are rightly calling for them to step down.
The Poles are a humorous nation that like to turn their politicians’ failings into jokes. The Minister for State Assets, Jacek Sasin, became an Internet meme after he spent 70 million zloty (about £14m) on elections that, in the end, never took place. The elections were scheduled for May 2020 before the pandemic hit. Instead of postponing, the government announced a mail-in ballot election and proceeded with preparations, despite it violating a 2011 Constitutional Tribunal ruling. In the end, failure to properly organise the elections, which were not postponed, meant they simply did not happen. As a result, new elections were called, this time for June 2020. The printed-out ballots proved unusable as the candidates listed were not accurate. The grand total of ’70 million on elections that never happened’/’Jacek Sasin wydał 70 milionów na wybory, które się nie odbyły’ became a viral caption.
But when leaders’ mistakes cost lives, even Slavic humour is tested. Patience for this government, and its incompetent handling of the pandemic, is running thin. Another viral line, ‘if you live in Poland, you don’t laugh on April Fool’s Day’/’Kto żyje w Polsce, ten w Prima Aprilis się nie śmieje’, perhaps sums up the mood among Poles most adequately.
There is tentative hope that things may finally begin to improve for Poles. The vaccination programme is beginning to speed up and there is cautious optimism that the latest lockdown could ease pressure on the healthcare system (despite the fact that churches were predictably exempt from lockdown during Easter week). But this government has already done enough damage. This time, slick PR and stirring anti-LGBT sentiment will not be enough to save them. The upcoming mayoral elections in the city of Rzeszów will be an important marker for the future of Polish politics. It is perhaps not a mere coincidence, therefore, that the city has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
This is an important mayoral election and it can be viewed with cautious optimism by the country’s opposition. As Michał Kobosko, journalist and leading figure in the popular Polska2050 party, recently remarked in Wyborcza, the future of Polish politics might well be decided in Rzeszów. He is right, even if his own party recently lost face after its leader Szymon Hołownia, TV celebrity-turned-populist politician, bragged online about having taken advantage of the glitched appointments system to vaccinate himself ahead of the queue.
The result of the Rzeszów mayoral vote could do one of two things: encourage the government to call a snap election in a bid to capitalise on a good result and secure a big majority in the legislature, or provide a desperately-needed boost to the opposition. A third and worrying option is also foreseeable: Grzegorz Braun, far-right MP and conspiracy theorist, is also on the ballot and one would be unwise to write him off. He is a popular MP from the region who has gained widespread support for opposing lockdown measures and questioning the severity of the pandemic.
Within the last week we have witnessed a cruel glitch in the country’s vaccination programme, suspiciously political distributions of life-saving vaccines, and a near-total collapse of the healthcare system. It is difficult to judge whether our incumbent leaders are incompetent fools, purposeful crooks, or both. Whichever it is, the time has come for a criminally negligent government to so something patriotic: step down.