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Covid pandemic peaks in Eastern Europe ruins Easter

Eastern Europe largely escaped the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, but the picture has changed dramatically with several countries experiencing record infections and deaths.

There is now a scramble to vaccinate the population fast but, as BBC correspondents across the region explain, the rate of infection is proving a major obstacle.

Health system tested to its limit

Poland is struggling to cope with its highest number of new infections since the pandemic began - 60 times higher than at the start of the pandemic in spring last year - because of the rampant UK (Kent) variant of the virus.

In the worst affected area of Silesia, patients are being airlifted to less burdened hospitals in neighbouring provinces. The government is now trying to attract doctors from abroad.

Poland avoided high numbers of infections and deaths when the pandemic began thanks to a strict lockdown, closing its borders and restricting people's movement, even for exercise. That wasn't sustainable and both movement and economic life resumed.

Schools, shops and businesses are closed again but churches in this deeply Catholic country remain open for limited numbers of worshippers for Easter. Poles have been allowed to maintain their tradition of taking their wicker baskets of eggs and sausages to be blessed by the priests.

Many here have been critical of the vaccine rollout, and the government was forced into a humiliating apology on 1 April when it suddenly changed its policy overnight and allowed anyone aged 40 to 60 to register for a jab. Demand was so high that the system crashed.

Surging deaths but fast vaccinations

Hungary now has one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the world, with more than 21,000 coronavirus-related deaths and a third wave claiming hundreds of lives every day.

And yet its speed of vaccination is among the highest in Europe. More than one in five Hungarians has had a first dose.

So what is going wrong?

Hungary has high rates of cancer and heart disease and a high fatality rate among people needing ventilation. Although the government bought an astonishing 16,000 ventilators last summer, there aren't enough people to operate them because of a 25% shortage of doctors and a 30% shortage of nurses, largely because of emigration. Another 5,500 doctors quit last month in a row over wage reform.

The vaccination picture looks brighter. Prime Minister Viktor Orban gambled successfully on buying supplies of Russia's Sputnik V and then the Chinese Sinopharm vaccines - allowing Hungary to race ahead while many EU countries faced problems with vaccine supplies.

Many Hungarians were sceptical of the Chinese jab but had it when offered. And when spare vaccine doses arise, friends and relatives of nurses snap them up.

Locked down and with vaccines in short supply

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