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17 May 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 12:20pm

How eastern Europe’s Covid-19 crisis surpassed the west

Slow vaccine roll-outs appear to have hit states such as Hungary and Czechia particularly hard.

By Patrick Scott

Western Europe’s plight during the Covid-19 pandemic has been heavily documented throughout the past year, and with good reason. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that European countries further east are likely to end with the highest death tolls.

For instance, the UK, which entered its penultimate stage of lockdown easing today, fell out of the European top ten this week for cumulative Covid-19 death rates. Poland has taken its place.

The virus’s arrival in Europe in Italy last spring was broadcast around the world, with scenes of overrun hospitals and the sound of near-constant ambulance sirens featuring nightly on news bulletins.

Spain, the UK and Belgium were the next nations to be hit hard, all climbing to the top of the table for Covid-19 death rates and staying there for most of 2020. However, as you can see in our animated chart below, eastern European countries now comprise seven of the top 10 (and all of the top five) slots for cumulative death rates in Europe.


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The slow progress of vaccination programmes has contributed to this rise. In Czechia, the country with the second highest cumulative death rate, just 31 doses per 100 people have been administered, compared to 75 per 100 in the UK.

As we have seen in India, countries with low vaccination coverage are particularly vulnerable to more transmissible strains of the virus. Richer countries such as the UK might be able to mass-vaccinate their way through outbreaks of new variants, but those where vaccination rates are low will almost certainly suffer a further heavy cost to life and economic health if such a variant were to take hold.

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Central and eastern European nations tend to have lower levels of Covid-19 vaccine coverage
Total vaccination rates in Europe so far

You can get more information on how different countries, both in Europe and across the world, are coping with Covid-19 at our international tracker page.

[See also: Does the Indian variant mean the UK will suffer a dangerous third wave of Covid-19?]