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Dan moved to Poland 14 years ago. Originally from Norway, he opened his dental clinic in 2006 to cater to Norwegians coming to the new EU member states for the purpose of medical tourism - it was cheaper to fly from Norway to Krakow and have a dental procedure here than to schedule an appointment and pay for it there.
Since then, his business has grown to become one of the largest dental clinics in Krakow, with 25 people on the payroll, serving both medical tourists and regular Polish customers.
He said he has been preparing for the economic shock related to the government restrictions since late February.
Nonetheless, when on March 13th Prime Minister Morawiecki announced that Poland would be closing its borders to stop an inflow of coronavirus cases from other countries, the clinic immediately lost 40% of its income. With further restrictions of movement coming in the weeks since, local Polish customers vanished too.
“I expected both the lockdown and the panic, but the fact that it took the government so long to come up with a rescue package for the economy was more shocking and disturbing”, he exclaimed.
“I wish the government would get more creative”
For many expats, the weakness of the anti-crisis shield proposed by the government is the main source of frustration. Bryan, whose business helps Polish software houses find partner companies in the U. S. in need of development assistance, sees many of his friends struggling with keeping their bars and restaurants afloat.
“I really wish the government would get more creative in helping entrepreneurs make money. Temporarily lifting the rules that block restaurants from selling alcohol with their delivery and to-go orders would make a huge difference. Many states in the U.S. have done this. Being able to add a bottle or two of beer to a delivery order could be the difference between restaurants covering their expenses instead of being in the red.”
Timothy, an English language teacher from Poznan working for a private school, was left without his main source of income after language schools were forced to suspend their activities. Despite this, he is trying to stay in Poland, hoping that the situation will stabilize soon enough.
Lee, who owns two restaurants in Krakow, sees his business as the main reason to stay in Poland. The decision to restrict the restaurants to delivery and takeout only was painful for his business, but he fully supports it.
Before becoming a restaurateur, he graduated with a medical degree from the Medical University of Silesia. However, if he ends up being forced to close his restaurants permanently, he would consider returning to Taiwan.
At the same time, he conceded that even if that was the plan, it would be near impossible at the moment. Most flights between the EU and East Asia are cancelled. Even if he were to find a flight, “it is also super dangerous, with high probability of being in contact with someone infected on the flights or at the airport”, he added.
He employs people from India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nigeria and Ukraine. “Except Ukrainians, other employees are currently stuck in Poland. And some of them are hoping there will be clear information on whether there will be automatic visa extension due to coronavirus”.
The Office for Foreigners confirmed that all foreigners who had a visa/residence permit at the time of the introduction of the state of epidemiological threat on March 14 are legally entitled to stay in Poland throughout the duration of the state of epidemiological threat/state of epidemy and for 30 days after its end without the need to complete any additional paperwork.
Online expat groups are the main source of information
Those expats who do not speak Polish have a hard time finding official sources about their rights and obligations, as well as about the ever-tightening restrictions on movement and economic activity. Lee told me that to find information in English he had to look elsewhere. Similar opinion was expressed by Dan and Timothy. All agreed that online expat community groups have been an invaluable source.
Magda, a Georgian who moved to Poland last November after finishing her degree in Belgium, told me that her company is keeping herself well informed about all coronavirus-related news in Poland.
Magda moved to Kraków in November and hopes to remain in Poland (personal archive).
Bryan uses online expat communities as well as Polish articles that he reads with some help from Google Translate. He has no intention of going back to the U. S. for now. He believes that the aggressive social distancing measures taken by the government and a relatively high level of societal discipline in terms of observing them makes Poland one of the safest countries when it comes to the spread of coronavirus.
Lee sees it differently. He is critical of the government’s decision to downplay the importance of wearing masks, seeing it as a lie aimed at covering up the fact that there are not enough masks for all medical professionals. He would feel safer if Poland followed the example of Czechia and made it compulsory for everyone leaving their house to cover their mouth with a mask or at the very least a scarf.
Pointing to the example of his home country, which during the pandemic became the second largest producer of protective masks globally, Lee believes that the Polish government should take a more proactive role in ensuring their production and distribution.
In a way, it is hardly surprising that Bryan sees the Polish government’s efforts to fight the virus more favourably than Lee. Over the last two weeks, the United States became the global epicenter of the pandemic. Meanwhile, more than two months after its first official case was announced on January 21st, Taiwan has a little more than 300 total cases.
“I have no plans for the future”
According to the Office for Foreigners, in January 2020 there were 423,000 foreigners living in Poland with a valid residence permit.
Between the continuously spreading pandemic, the suspension of everyday regular life and the ongoing struggle to stay afloat amid the inevitable recession, some level of panic would be warranted.
Once you add to this list the fact of living in a foreign country at a time when international travel has all but come to a halt, without being fluent in the local language, even despair would be justified. Yet, the tone I heard the most was a mixture of resilience, defiance and dark humor.
I asked Magda what will happen if her company has to downsize.
“If I lose this job, I will probably go back to Georgia. Of course, assuming that there will be flights available,” she said, laughing.
Last June, she graduated from one of the top universities in Europe, the College of Europe, with a degree in European economics and business. Now, all European economies, and most of its businesses, are turning upside down.
“I have no plans for the future because everything changes on a daily basis”, she told me at the end of our conversation.
Bryan is taking a similar approach. “I expect the border to remain closed through this summer. I will have to take my holidays inside the country. It’s hard to predict much into the future for right now”.
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Bryan settled down in Kraków 5 years ago (personal archive).
Amid the rising uncertainty about the broader picture, one thing is clear to everyone I talked to - they are not ready to give up on their hopes and dreams.
Timothy is interested in opening a food bank supporting those who have been hit the hardest by the coming economic crisis.
“I will stay in Poland and save my company”, Dan, whose wife is Polish, told me. “Today is tough. But only those who struggle can grow strong, so this is what we’ll do.”
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