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Upper Silesia is Poland's COVID-19 epicenter

May 15, 2020

The rate of coronavirus transmissions in Poland is dropping — except in the southern region of Upper Silesia, where it is rising rapidly. Miners in the heavily industrial region are most at risk.

Ruda Śląska
Image: DW/K. Mejer

The first weekend in May was the first time the weather could really have been called springlike in Ruda Slaska. Normally, in such weather, children would have been playing in front of the red brick houses that were built over 100 years ago for the workers at the first coal mine here. But this year, they had to stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic regulations.

Adults have also been banned from gathering in groups, but, unlike the children, not everyone follows the rules. A group of young residents from the typical houses, called "familoki" in Polish, met up to hold an outside barbecue. Krzysztof Mejer, the deputy mayor of Ruda Slaska, told DW that he was horrified when he heard of it.

Krzysztof Mejer, Ruda Slaska
Deputy Mayor Mejer took his dismay to social mediaImage: privat

Mejer immediately wrote a warning on his Facebook account: "The people at the barbecue were not wearing masks, of course. They also stood and sat very close to one another. And a few days later, it turned out that one of the guests was a woman infected with the coronavirus who probably infected others as well."

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Since early May, Ruda Slaska and other cities in the heavily populated region of Upper Silesia have been the biggest breeding ground for the coronavirus in Poland. At the moment (as of May 14), there are some 17,600 registered cases of coronavirus infection in Poland, with 4,000 of them in Silesia. Of those cases, 1,000 are miners. As a rule, two-thirds of new reported cases each day come from the region, which has a population of 4.5 million.

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No sealing off

Media took to calling Upper Silesia the "Polish Wuhan" because government officials reportedly wanted to seal off the entire region as Chinese authorities had with the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began. Government officials now deny having had any intention to do so. "No one is planning to seal off cities; no one is planning to restrict freedom of movement," said Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski.

Nevertheless, regional politicians have protested against the reported plans to isolate Upper Silesia. "These are rumors, but rumors don't come from nowhere," Mejer said. He feels that it would not be necessary to close off the entire region, saying it would already help if work in the mines were restricted. At the moment, work has stopped at just three of the 30 mines in Upper Silesia.

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Closing mines is a delicate topic in Upper Silesia. "A mine isn't a shop. If you close it, you can't open it again," a miner from the Jankowice mine in Rybnik told the Polish website money.pl. "If the mine lies fallow for 3-4 days, fire can break out, and all our work will have been for nothing. You have to keep digging and pumping water out in the mine, at least a little bit. There mustn't be a complete break," he said.

Despite the risk of infection, the miner wants to get back to a steady work rhythm as quickly as possible. "I hope they start doing proper tests at last, then there won't be the stress of worrying that you will be infected. But you can't talk about keeping 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) from each other; that's impossible for us."

Although coal production has been stopped at the Jankowice mine, some workers are still ensuring that it is maintained in running order. There are two elevators, with one capable of carrying 120 miners and the other 48. The miners normally have to stand packed together in the elevators for at least 1 ½ minutes. Now, only half of the miners are allowed to use the lifts at any one time. There has also been a big reduction in the working hours of the miners who still go to the mine to keep it functional. 

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"We have reduced work to four days a week," said Sebastian Czogala, of the Polish Miners Union. "Our income has gone down 20%, but that lets our employers apply for state assistance." He can't imagine the mines being closed: That would mean the end of the industry.

Appealing to the coal industry

Poland gets 80% of its energy from coal. There are 90,000 people working as miners, and 90,000 more work in mining-related companies. But even if Polish politicians make heavy weather of setting long-term climate goals, recent years have seen coal mining being systematically wound down amid a reduction of jobs in the sector.

A mine worker in Poland
Poland gets 80% of its energy from coalImage: picture alliance/PAP/A. Grygiel

The curbs on coal production during the pandemic have fueled speculation that this trend could be reinforced. But during a recent visit to Silesia, Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin from the ruling PiS party declared that the pandemic would not be a pretext for closing down mines faster. "It is my aim to prevent miners losing their jobs and to ensure Poland's energy security," he said.

The miners' mood could influence the upcoming presidential election. That is why incumbent President Andrzej Duda, who will be the PiS candidate, is courting them. "During these days, we are all from Silesia. Together, we will beat the pandemic," Duda wrote on his Twitter account.

Mejer, the deputy mayor of Ruda Slaska, would be more impressed by concrete action than by the grand words coming from politicians in Warsaw. The government has just decided to carry out 50,000 tests in Silesia over the next two weeks. "That is all OK, but still too little. And a bit too late," he says.

Of the 60,000 miners who work in the narrow underground tunnels, only 15,000 have been tested so far. Had more tests been carried out from the start, the situation in Upper Silesia would not be what it is now, Mejer said.

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