The coronavirus pandemic has spread to virtually all corners of the world, with the United States as its new epicenter. How is America faring? How do society and the authorities across the pond view the developing crisis? Can we entertain the idea of a likely shift in global power politics? Ambassador of Poland to the United States Piotr Wilczek gave us an insider look at the American Polonia’s solidarity, Polish-American relations, as well as the U.S. administration’s efforts in combatting the epidemic.
Łukasz Biernacki: How would you describe the state of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States? What has been the dominant attitude towards the situation within American society – resignation, fear, or maybe even motivation and solidarity in combatting the pandemic?
Piotr Wilczek, Ambassador of Poland to the U.S.: Every country finds itself in a difficult situation, searching for the best method of combatting the pandemic. I have been observing the situation in the U.S. from up-close, and I see every day how Americans are impacted by COVID-19. A number of individuals certainly feel uneasy or dejected, especially in the face of immediate human suffering, the loss of employment or the inability to visit loved ones. I do believe, however, that interpersonal solidarity dominates, as Americans attempt to find the silver lining in this trying, new reality of ours. They are prepared to rebuild the economy and to return to life as it was to the greatest extent possible.
Why did the United States, in spite of the rather slow increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in February, become the epicenter of the pandemic? What factors contributed to this exponential spread of the virus?
There are many factors at play which dictate the course of the pandemic in this country. The U.S. is a country of almost 330 million inhabitants, diverse in its geography as well as in its population density by area. As such, the spread of the virus looks different than in many European countries. It is important to note that the so-called “hot-spots” of the outbreak are found in states with large metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles – in other words, economic centers popular with tourists where the population density is high.
Agricultural states such as Wyoming, North and South Dakota, or Montana, where the population density is low and social distancing is easier to implement, have seen significantly fewer cases. Factors such as varying attitudes towards the outbreak and preventative measures undertaken by state and local governments influence the spread of the virus.
Throughout this crisis, have you noticed any similarities between the actions taken by government institutions in both Poland and the United States?
Our two countries are different and our strategies for dealing with the pandemic vary, as well. Please keep in mind that the United States is made up of 50 states and that the differences between their respective approaches, the actions taken by local governments notwithstanding, can vary significantly. The scale of the issue is also different – some parts of the U.S. have seen fewer cases of the virus when compared to, for example, heavily impacted areas such as New York. Thus, it becomes difficult to compare the two. I have no doubt, however, that both the federal and state authorities in the United States, as well as national institutions in Poland, have taken all possible steps in order to contain the pandemic. As we are dealing with such an unprecedented situation, many of the solutions adopted by our respective governments may seem inconvenient to us – but we will make it through this crisis and we will be better prepared to deal with a similar threat in the future.
Has the role of the Embassy changed as a result of the crisis? What are its main functions during this time?
The Embassy is doing its best to operate normally during these abnormal times. The unique nature of the situation renders us incapable of maintaining in-person contact with many of our partners in government, media, societal and Polish-American circles. In spite of this, a majority of our meetings have transitioned to teleconferences and videoconferences; we have increased our activity online; we are reaching our audiences more effectively through social media; and we have, up until recently, managed a widely-disseminated informational campaign regarding a repatriation program for Poles seeking to return to Poland from the U.S. via chartered flights. Despite these new work conditions, we continue to concentrate on strengthening our bilateral relations and multilateral cooperation within the EU and NATO. Our analytical assignments continue to be carried out, and we share back with Warsaw our assessments on the development of U.S. domestic, foreign, defense and economic policy. Our consular section of the Embassy, as well as the Consulates General in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, have been making painstaking efforts each and every day in assisting our fellow compatriots, all while navigating limitations imposed on society by the pandemic. I would say that the role of the Embassy remains the same, apart from the fact that we are utilizing new tools under these entirely new circumstances.
How is the Embassy of Poland cooperating with the American administration in the fight against COVID-19?
I am in awe of the hard work carried out by local medical services, who sacrifice themselves fighting the effects of the pandemic. Local and federal authorities are currently focused on guaranteeing safe working conditions for these services, patients, and all of American society so that they may better tackle this disease. My team at the Embassy and I are engaged in identifying possible avenues of cooperation in obtaining tests and medical equipment essential to combatting COVID-19 in Poland. We are actively in touch with members of the administration, as well as directly with manufacturers. This is not a one-way street – there are also Polish firms that are, at the same time, able to effectively supply our medical market, as well as to offer help to local communities in the U.S. In my opinion, this is a great example of solidarity that strengthens our mutual relations.
How has the Polish American community dealt with the crisis?
Poles are able to come together and work with one another in tough times. We also don’t lack self-discipline. The coronavirus obviously does not discriminate against the Polish American community, and we have received information about individuals who are hospitalized and who have died as a result of COVID-19 complications. This is why we, through all of our diplomatic missions in the U.S., have asked the American Polonia to adhere to local restrictions and guidance.
How is the Polish American community pitching in during the pandemic?
Poles living in the United States help each other out. You can see this in peoples’ individual behavior and in the various activities carried out by Polish diaspora organizations. The Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union has established a special fund dedicated to help those whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19, and it is a concrete example of support given to those in our Polish communities most in need. Polish diaspora organizations can apply for funding after presenting a specific plan to help people struggling with the effects of the pandemic. Another great example of Polonia’s commitment is the Association of Polish Doctors in Chicago’s providing access to information regarding the spread of the virus and the threat of infection. On the Association’s initiative, a free, Polish-language helpline was launched for patients. Pamphlets and information about the virus are also sent to Polish doctors and business communities with a request to print and to place them in visible locations. The Archdiocese of Chicago sent instructions to all priests and deacons in the Polish language, among others, regarding safety vis-à-vis the pandemic, based on guidance from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Thanks to Polish parishes, this information was disseminated to almost all of those attending masses in Polish in Chicago and the surrounding area.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic will invariably lead to a large-scale and painful economic crisis. Are we currently dealing with layoffs and business closures, including those affecting Poles who lost their jobs or have had to suspend operations?
Our consulates and the Polish American Chamber of Commerce have offered invaluable help in reporting such information. We have all heard of federal programs such as the Federal Coronavirus Relief Program, but there are also programs at the state and local levels. For example, funds from the Illinois Small Business Emergency Loan Fund, worth $60 million, will be financed with low-interest loans of up to $50,000 for small businesses. The Fund will be injected with an additional $30 million, of which $20 million will come from funds from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and $10 million from funds secured as part of a partnership with banks; the Polish American community can utilize said funds. The situation in New York is similar, where those running a business are able to receive loans to ensure business continuity, including advances of up to $10,000 available three days after submitting an application for urgent expenses, including employee salaries. Unfortunately, the economic losses among the Polish diaspora are considerable because Americans of Polish descent are among the most entrepreneurial people in the United States.
The People’s Republic of China and the coronavirus – is it the source of the problem, or a helpful partner?
The Chinese society has been hit hard by the pandemic. The thousands of deaths confirm that the coronavirus does not discriminate against nationality. It is important to remember that China has provided far-reaching humanitarian and commercial assistance to many countries around the world, providing critical medical equipment.
It is worth viewing U.S.-China relations during the pandemic through the lens of complicated, broader ties between the two countries. China, like Russia, is officially seen by the United States as one of its main global competitors. On the other hand, both countries are bound by strong trade and economic ties. China is the largest creditor of U.S. foreign debt. All of this means that Americans, while recognizing China’s challenges during the pandemic, point to the need for cooperation with Beijing.
American LNG being sent to Poland – can this strategic cooperation continue to develop as it did before?
We must clearly distinguish the pandemic situation from strategic relations, including trade relations between the U.S. and other countries. Poland remains an active ally of the United States’, and energy cooperation constitutes an important pillar of our bilateral relations. Poland has a strategy for diversifying gas sources and for directing the supply of gas, a very important element of which is long-term contracts for the supply of American LNG. It is 20-30% cheaper than the raw material previously supplied by the Russians under the Yamal Contract, which expires in 2022. At the same time, Poland is realizing investments aimed at strengthening our energy security, such as the construction of The Baltic Pipe and the expansion of the LNG terminal in Świnoujście. Energy cooperation between Poland and the USA is developing robustly. As part of our strategic energy dialogue, we discuss cooperation in the gas sector as well as on cyber security, new coal-processing technologies and collaboration in the field of nuclear technology. Last year, we signed a memorandum on gas cooperation between Poland, the United States and Ukraine. Thus, the United States is and will remain a strategic partner for Poland not only in terms of conventional energy resources such as gas, but also future energy sources.
What will the international landscape look like after we contain the pandemic? Which alliances will become more crucial?
International, global cooperation is needed to successfully fight the pandemic. Mutual assistance between countries, including those that are not traditional allies, creates conditions for building greater trust. On the other hand, the U.S. authorities and local pundits are concerned that the current crisis is being used by some countries to strengthen their global positioning or to undermine the cohesion of democratic societies. Certainly, such instrumental use of the pandemic does not serve the relationships between major players on the international stage well. The current health crisis has not changed the American administration’s attitude towards NATO, with which, as Poland’s Ambassador, I am very pleased. Overcoming this pandemic will not cause all of the security challenges faced by the U.S., Europe and our region that were present before the crisis to magically disappear. Fortunately, the American administration understands this perfectly.
Ambassador of Poland to the United States Piotr Wilczek was born on April 26, 1962. He arrived in Washington as Ambassador-Designate on November 6, 2016 and was accredited by President Barack Obama on January 18, 2017. Before his diplomatic appointment to the U.S., he was a professor at the University of Warsaw and a Representative in Poland for the New York-based Kosciuszko Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educational, cultural, and artistic exchange between the United States and Poland. He also served as President of the Foundation’s affiliate in Warsaw. An international scholar active in Europe and the United States, he has been a fierce proponent of liberal arts education, which breaks the existing barriers between narrow fields of specialization traditionally favored in continental Europe. From 1998 to 2001, he taught at Rice University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago as a visiting professor. In May 2017, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Cleveland State University.
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