The war of Poles against Poles during the pandemic
The pandemic only worsened existing political problems in Poland. The tensions have even been dubbed the ‘Polish-Polish war’.
This article is part of our series on the social impact of COVID-19.
With one of the highest excess deaths rates globally, significantly understaffed and underfunded healthcare, and deep political divisions, Poland has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the accompanying high inflation, the problematic housing market, doubts around the presidential elections, and two refugee crises, Polish society has been significantly reshaped. The problems grew to such an extent that they have been dubbed the ‘Polish-Polish War’ (Wojna polsko-polska).
The pandemic’s beginning marked the fifth year in government for the coalition of right-wing parties under the leadership of the Law and Justice party. Already at that time, polarisation of Polish society was steadily increasing. 
The development of the pandemic only worsened political problems. The controversial presidential elections in June 2020 were won by Andrzej Duda, the Law and Justice partycandidate, by a thin margin, leaving many uncertain about their validity.   The Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling restricting abortion resulted in mass protests, despite significant numbers of new infections.  The return of Donald Tusk, polarising leader of the largest opposition party, to national politics from his post as the President of the European Council reinvigorated his rivalry with Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice party.  
Both coalition partners of the Law and Justice partybecame increasingly critical toward the biggest party and the government led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. When the coalition’s internal struggle led to a hostile takeover from within the more moderate coalition partner, the government was left without a secure majority, and the remaining parties veered to the right. The multiple controversies in handling the pandemic during 2020 further impaired public support for the government.
The economic inequalities further strengthened political polarisation, as well as significant political divisions between generations and genders. These political divisions led to the lowest levels of trust in a national government in Europe. As media were viewed as party-aligned, social media became the primary source of information for 75% of society, according to the study conducted by the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
The mistrust in the government led to high levels of vaccine hesitancy, and the emergence of groups contesting the impact of pandemic-related restrictions on their work and life, from healthcare workers, teachers and students, to business owners. The mistrust towards the media and official state channels led to numerous conspiracy theories spreading widely. The growing group of pandemic disbelievers was supported by the Confederation Liberty and Independence, a fringe coalition of right-wing parties which lost its Facebook page mid-pandemic for misinformation and hate speech.
Religion complexified the picture further. The government was for a long time hesitant to close churches for fear of their electorate. When it finally did, there seemed to be a degree of consensus about the restrictions, with Catholic bishops offering dispensation from the Sunday Mass participation. However, over time the question of whether to keep churches open became one of the main battlefields of the pandemic. The lines of division were not clear, with some bishops, priests, and laypeople advocating for significant restrictions, and others disagreeing, actively disobeying them, or even spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.  
The COVID-19 pandemic also functioned as a catalyst for leaving religious practice behind. While the Roman Catholic affiliation remained at a high level (87.4% in August 2021), the decrease in levels of religious practice accelerated from May 2020 onwards. The most significant drop has been observed among people aged 18-34, which might have also been an expression of the deep polarisation mentioned earlier.
While there are glimpses of hope that the pandemic might soon be a thing of the past, the same is not true for polarisation in Poland. Significantly divided, Polish society is heading towards even greater cleavages. Even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not help to mend the social ties. The short-lived unification broke as soon as the government tried to force regulations relieving government officials from responsibility for criminal actions in handling the growing refugee crisis.
The Catholic Church does not seem to be in a position to influence the situation either. On the one hand, it is viewed by those opposing the government as too politically aligned with the ruling coalition. On the other hand, during the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, the voice of the episcopate’s calls for humanitarian treatment of refugees did not have a significant influence on the government’s action. Ultimately, this polarisation has no end in sight.
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