A letter from Poland
“Ever since power in Poland was taken over by Law and Justice, we are increasingly giving our support to organizations or initiatives that do not have state support, but which for many people become crucial. However, it was only when it became necessary for grassroots support to the country's healthcare staff that the painful insight reached me that the state does not fulfill its basic responsibility for the security and safety of its citizens."
The pandemic closes Poland, while the political power is shifting in a country that is moving farther from being a democracy. How does the individual reconcile with the new reality? Wiola Wejman is a researcher working at the "Brama Grodzka - Theater NN" center in Lublin, which works to recreate the memory of the city's Jewish population in a unique archive and museum. In recent years, she also devoted herself to recording conversations with people who were forced to leave the country due to the anti-Semitic persecution in Poland 1968-1970.
“The country stood in my throat.
I cannot swallow it
Or spit it out.”
The past few years have not been easy year for Poland. The results of the 2015 presidential and parliamentary election that paved the way for the right-wing Law and Justice Party have polarized society. The public debate has hardened, and protests against government reforms have grown increasingly emotional. A raft of decisions on the system of governance have been more than some parts of society can take. There’s the indifference and eventually hostility towards refugees. The discrimination of and hate-speech towards LGBT-people, the racist and anti-Semitic comments that are becoming more common and more accepted in the public domain. The discrimination of women expressed in, amongst other ways, the efforts to implement a total ban on abortions. The trivialization of the consequences of climate change. The politicization of the public media. Add to this the reform of the courts and the violation of the Constitution and I’ve have mentioned just a few of the problems we’ve been facing over these past five years. It was in this emotionally charged and insecure time that the pandemic struck.
During the first week in March, the online editions of our national newspapers trumpeted out their messages in bright red letters – the first case of COVID-19 in Poland had now been officially confirmed. It was obvious that the number of infections was greater than one. But how much greater? A hundred times, a thousand? Were they the people I met in the corner shop? How could I protect myself against infection? Feverishly I hunted around for more info on the matter. Keeping my hands clean couldn’t be that difficult, but could the infection be airborne too?
The grapevine bombarded us with new facts and theories about the epidemic-like situation in the country. I played it safe and avoided large groups of people. Crowded streets, packed high-street car parks. The sight of men carrying backpacks full of potatoes is an image I won’t forget for long. It was as if we were all getting ready for war. The information on the epidemic came many from political quarters, and still does. But is it reliable? When did the politicians become epidemiologists? The attempts to build public confidence was not helped by the way the Ministry of Health for a long time neglected to say the names of those behind the analyses and the advises given to the minister on epidemic-related matters. It wasn’t until mid-May that they decided to publish the list of these scientists.
The most common reactions in a society hit by an epidemic is fear and the need to find scapegoats. During a sermon in a Wrocław church, the priest bore witness that coronavirus was God’s punishment for homosexuality, abortion and a life of sin. He then went on to assure the congregation that the only way to protect themselves from the virus was to pray. I don’t know if these words made anyone leave the church.
People are trying to relate to the new, invisible peril in a variety of ways. In the windows of apartments, crucifixes and icons of Jesus and Mary started to appear. The belief in the miraculous power of the saints remains strong in Poland. In astonishment, I read a story of a priest from Lublin and his solitary pilgrimage. Holding rosemary and some relics, he’s been wandering up and down the deserted streets of my hometown, praying aloud for an end to the plague. Just a few months earlier, this priest, who wanted to save the town from infection, had been a vociferous opponent of the Pride parade organized by the LGBT-community. His homophobic views chime with the now dominant narrative on sexual minorities. Vulgar jokes circulating in the media, lorries with hate messages painted on their trailers, difficulties getting a permit to organize parades, the despicable municipal acts to create No-Go zones for “LGBT ideology” – at the time of writing, these zones make up 30% of the country, which in effect outlaw the lives of thousands of Poles. Not surprisingly, Poland has dropped to bottom place in the ILGA’s equality ranking for LGBT people in the EU. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that I live in such a homophobic country, and I understand more and more the friends and acquaintances who have chosen to emigrate due to their sexual orientation. I miss them dearly, but wish them a full and happy life. To be effectively banished from society and denied security and support in one’s own country must be one of the hardest experiences to bear.
Poland was one of the first countries in Europe to leap at lighting speed into action by “freezing” and closing big parts of society. Less than a fortnight after the first case of COVID-19 most institutions had switched to remote. Schools and courses, preschools, day-care centres, cafés and restaurants all closed. Theatres cancelled their performances and other places of entertainment and culture followed suit. Public communications dwindled to a minimum. It was no longer possible to see a doctor, and local emergency clinics only offered advice on the phone. Gatherings of over fifty people were banned, including for political and religious purposes. The national borders were closed to all air and rail traffic. Passport checks were set up at all border crossings and the only people allowed in were Polish citizens or employees. From the government, all we heard was: “We must adapt to this new reality, nothing will be the same again.”
The open society was transformed and what had been taken for granted a few days ago now seemed totally unattainable. I tried to stay rational about the new situation and explained to myself that I just had to accept it, but it is an acceptance tainted by my experiences of living in a country that for many years restricted freedom of travel. At the time of writing the borders are still closed and it´s getting a new passport is hard, not to say impossible.
The pandemic has totally transformed my job. What I do is to record the memories of the elderly for documentary purposes, something that for obvious reasons can’t be done at present. Some conversations aren’t yet ready and are waiting to be followed up on. Most of my more elderly subjects don’t have access to the Internet, some of them don’t even have a phone. The Oral History Association’s recommendations to record memories through online communication are impossible. I worry about them. How are they coping in this new world that we live in? How are they being affected by the imposed isolation and the loneliness that it brings? Will they manage to get by without being infected? I wish I could carry on seeing them. With horror, I read about how the virus has swept through care home after care home, in most cases with dramatic consequences as staff have fallen ill and rendered incapable of looking after their residents.
Compared to the rest of the EU, Poland was far from being a front runner when it came to the number of tests being done to measure the number of cases per million citizens. In the shops, the shelves of disinfectant have been empty. I bought some pure alcohol instead and tried to clean everything I had to touch outside. I washed most of my shopping items carefully, thinking “better safe than sorry”. The stink coming from the newspaper, which I’d put in the oven for two minutes to kill any lurking viruses, eventually made me realize that I couldn’t disinfect an entire world.
The hospitals have had the beds, the main problem has been the lack of PPE. The ones there to save our lives were themselves in danger. It triggered a massive public response: people have been sewing face masks and making visors as if there was no tomorrow. Everywhere, public notice boards have been full of hospital appeals for masks and photos of people bent over their sewing machines, just normal people trying to save the situation. At that point, the state had only just started to organize its own procurement of the necessary protective gear. But the need was immediate. Finally, under much media hoo-ha the world’s largest transport plan landed at Warsaw airport packed with PPE, including millions of face masks – that later turned out to lack CE marking.
In Poland, spontaneous fundraising campaigns for services to which the state either can or will not contribute are on the rise. Some existed prior to the pandemic, but now during spring 2020 they’ve been snowballing. We’ve already grown accustomed to the fact that we, as individuals, must help seriously ill people by donating something to costly drugs or operations. Ever since PiS – the Law and Justice Party – took power in Poland, we’re more inclined to support organisations or initiatives that provide vital services to many people, but lack government support. However, it was only when it proved necessary to give support to the country’s hospital and care workers by ensuring that they got the PPE they needed, that I was struck by the painful realisation that the government is not fulfilling its fundamental responsibilities for the safety and security of the people.
But also, other problems occur. A female doctor shared the following tragic experience. At the start of the epidemic, she tried to help her neighbours by handing out face masks. Some of them found out where she worked, and when the epidemic really took off she was told that she’d better leave town. Similar examples of hate targeted at care workers have increased, with people throwing paint on the doors of their apartments or vandalizing their cars.
At the end of March, the government decided to impose restrictions on our freedom of movement. We weren’t allowed to leave home for non-essential purposes and groups of more than two were banned. The number of people allowed to attend religious services was limited to five. Parks and woodland areas were closed off. A life in which the only window onto the world is an actual window is hard. Especially if outside that window, we see police officers patrolling up and down and police cars with megaphones on the roof crawling by blaring out the consequences of taking an illicit walk.
The lack of logic in the government’s bulletins has become ever more painful. In the early days of the pandemic, the Minister of Health announced that wearing a mask made little difference. Two weeks later, he’d changed his mind and masks were now obligatory.
In the middle of the restrictions, Poles were fed with media images of the official commemoration of the air crash ten years ago that claimed the lives of a government delegation. They could see how the top officials of the governing party were standing very close together, no one keeping their distance. The ban on citizen gatherings clearly had its exemptions. And the prohibition would be followed by more. During this period, not only parks but also churchyards were closed. In Poland, people would traditionally use the coming holiday to visit the family grave. This was no longer possible. But to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, no gates were closed. The event inspired a songwriter to compose a critical ballad on the churchyard visit. “Your pain is greater than mine” shot to the top of the Polish radio charts, much to the disapproval of the regime. The new director of the radio station accused those responsible for rigging the vote and demanded an immediate “solution to the song problem”. In a protest against censorship, a dozen journalists quit within a few days. Yet another step towards a total collapse of the public media had been taken.
In parallel with lives subverted by fear, restrictions and insecurity, a debate raged on the coming presidential election. Would it go ahead, and if so, how – during a prevailing pandemic? A traditional election seemed impossible, as it would entail a widespread risk to life. The temperature on the political stage reached boiling point. The governing party wanted to hold the election as planned on 10 May, come what may. Proposals about using a postal voting system were extended, but it later turned out to be too complicated to implement. Interestingly, the drastic clampdown on our freedom of movement was suddenly lifted, despite there having been no change in the transmission rate. Meanwhile, it turned out that Polish citizens living abroad would be disenfranchised. One of the keystones of a democratic election – its universality – would therefore fail. The chaos deepened. The election had to be postponed. Thirty million printed voting slips had to be pulped. I’m afraid that for the person on the street this only leads to one thing: a disinclination to engage with politics in all its shapes and forms. As I write this, new election dates have been announced. They’re to be held in two rounds, the first one in the end of June, and the second in the middle of July. There are eleven candidates. All men, the only woman having stepped down at the eleventh hour in favour of a man.
A functional state should do all it can to gain and keep the trust of the people. Currently, the Polish one is being put through one of its toughest ever trials. I can’t help thinking of what a colleague wrote on social media: “I never thought I’d live to see the day when my first reaction to a government decision was to come up with a conspiracy theory. To look for hidden meanings. It stunned me. A total lack of trust in the state.” Similar voices are becoming increasingly common in the public arena. The dynamic changes we’re seeing are deepening my fears for the future. Not least since the number of infected people has increased three days in a row and the police have just arrested activists on suspicion of erecting placards accusing the Minister of Health of peddling mendacious statistics and failing to handle the COVID-19 pandemic well.