Months after becoming the first country in the world to test its entire population, Slovakia now has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world.
The nation currently has the highest seven-day rolling average of COVID deaths per 1 million people in its population compared with any other country.
As of 15 February, there were 17.82 new coronavirus deaths per 1 million people, according to Our World in Data.
This was followed by Portugal with 14.81, Montenegro with 12.63, San Marino with 12.63 and Czechia with 12.23.
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The UK, which has seen more than 117,000 deaths since the pandemic began, came in sixth with 9.70 deaths per million as of 15 February.
It comes after Slovakia tested its entire population in October as part of a scheme that was widely praised and was understood to have brought down infections.
Cases in the country were reduced by more than 60% in one week, according to a preliminary analysis by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
However, just months later, Slovakia's rate of new COVID deaths are the highest in the world. So what went wrong?
What went wrong in Slovakia?
Slovakia has fared much worse during the second wave of coronavirus compared to the first, with cases skyrocketing since October.
Between the start of the pandemic in early 2020 and August that year, the rate of new infections in Slovakia did not rise above 10.96 per million people, according to Our World In Data.
Meanwhile, other European countries like the UK, Spain, Italy and France were seeing hundreds of people dying from the disease every day, especially during the peak around April.
Cases steadily began to rise in Slovakia from August before a sharp drop at the beginning of November, just after the entire nation was tested.
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Just before Christmas, Slovakia entered a tough national lockdown that included a round-the-clock curfew in a bid to curb the spread.
Case numbers peaked on 6 January at 597.08 cases per million people, and although they have since fallen, the figures are far off the low rates seen during the first wave.
The Slovakian government has blamed the UK variant of the virus for the recent rise in cases and deaths.
Earlier this month, it announced the fast-spreading strain had become dominant.
Health authorities reportedly sequenced all samples that tested positive in the country in a single day and found the British variant was detected in 74%. Health minister Mark Krajci called this an “unbelievable high number”, according to AP.
What's going on in Eastern Europe?
Like Slovakia, the majority of Eastern Europe was praised for its handling of the first wave after most countries locked down early and citizens appeared to stick to the harsh rules.
But the whole region’s pandemic experience has been dramatically different since the autumn, when cases and deaths began to rise across the board.
This week, Slovakia was not the only Eastern European country in the top five for the highest death rates in the world – Montenegro and Czechia have the third and fifth highest rate respectively.
Meanwhile, on Friday, total COVID cases in Russia, Poland, Czechia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria together surpassed 10 million and total COVID deaths in the region topped 214,000 deaths, according to Reuters tally.
Several of the countries are also dealing with huge anti-vaccination movements, which are threatening their path to recovery.
Vaccine sceptics in countries like the Czechia, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria have included former presidents and doctors. Even Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic said he did not want to be forced into getting a vaccine.
The hesitancy comes on the back of conspiracy theories like claims that coronavirus is a hoax or that vaccines are being used to inject microchips into people.
According to the AP, a recent Balkan study warned there is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and scepticism toward vaccination.
“A majority across the region does not plan to take the vaccine, a ratio considerably lower than elsewhere in Europe, where a majority favours taking the vaccine,” it reportedly said.
Elsewhere, Germany has recently ramped up border controls with Czechia and Austria’s Tyrol region amid fears over outbreaks of COVID variants strains.
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The country has recently seen a drop in daily infection rates but the spread of new variants in neighbouring countries, like France, threaten to undo those gains, Reuters reported.
One explanation for why Eastern Europe fared much better in the first wave than the rest of the continent is that countries locked down fast when infection numbers were still low, according to The Conversation.
The publication’s analysis showed the region then failed to introduce stringent measures when cases first began to soar in October. Yahoo News