A sanitation worker from Ukraine wears a hazmat suit, manufactured by 3M Co., during a break from carrying out disinfecting work on buses in Warsaw, Poland on Friday March 27 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PIOTR MALECKI
A sanitation worker from Ukraine wears a hazmat suit, manufactured by 3M Co., during a break from carrying out disinfecting work on buses in Warsaw, Poland on Friday March 27 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PIOTR MALECKI

Prague/Warsaw — Eastern Europeans with strong memories of authoritarian communist rule have taken a “been there, done that” attitude to the restrictions on free movement and shortages of some basic goods caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The shuttered stores, sealed borders and other measures have revived memories of life behind the old “Iron Curtain” before the fall of Communism and advent of democracy in 1989.

As Czech scientist Jan Konvalinka, joked on Twitter, “Shut borders, nothing on shelves, store closures? Welcome to my childhood.”

“We've been there, done that,” he added.

Scenes of shoppers in the UK, the US and elsewhere plundering supermarkets for toilet paper, pasta and canned goods have bemused many in a region where people once had to wait years to be able to buy a car or where they would queue hours for a rare delivery of bananas at a state-run store.

“In the UK, where you’ve had democracy for years, people panic when there’s an unusual situation. We are behaving in a more rational way, we are detached,” said Piotr Adamowicz, an opposition member of the Polish parliament and former anti-communist activist.

Echoing that comment, Andrea in Budapest said: “People here are not panicking”.

“My grandmother lived through two wars, my mom was born during World War 2 and then we had communism. We are prepared for this,” said Andrea, an ethnic Hungarian who grew up in Romania and spent time in a detention centre before 1989 after trying to cross into Hungary.

Temporary measures

People do not expect the current restrictions to last very long, unlike the privations they endured in the past.

“For me these border closures don’t hurt me as much as during communism because I know they will open one day,” said Filip Antos, owner of Czech online travel service A-Hotel.com.

“This is not like communism because we know this will end. During communism we didn’t think it would ever end.”

Access to trustworthy news sources today has also eased the strain for those who remember Moscow-dominated rule that ended in a series of mostly peaceful revolutions in 1989. Under communism, governments that nobody trusted were the main source of people's information in a pre-internet world.

For younger Eastern Europeans, however, the experience of shortages and closed borders is novel.

“I never thought such things could happen again,” said Tomas Klima, who was born a year before the 1989 Velvet Revolution in then-Czechoslovakia.

But, noting the hugely expanded role of the state in many countries to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and cushion the economic effects of the disruption caused, he added:

“We tend to forget too quickly what it used to be like back then. The state controlled everything, you had to ask for permission to travel abroad, etc.

“I hope people will realise soon that by allowing the state to take control of various aspects of people's lives, even if with good intentions, they lose a lot of their liberty.” 

Reuters