Polish cats are relaxing indoors rather than fighting on the frontlines of COVID-19, unlike the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century.
Cats are credited by some historians as having contributed to Poland’s lower death rate during the medieval plague. It is estimated that Poland lost between 15 and 25 percent of its population to the Black Death, which sounds catastrophic - but some areas lost 80% of their people - and as a whole, Europe lost 30%.
At that time, fleas infected by the bacterium Yersinia pestis were carried by rats - and spread via merchant ships from Asia and subsequently via European trade routes.
Cats are natural predators of rats, but their European populations had suffered greatly during the Inquisition, when cats were persecuted along with heretics in many countries. By contrast, killing cats in Poland was not acceptable, which helped keep rats - and by extension, the plague - in check.
All of this may help explain the prevalent cat theme in Krakow souvenir shops.
Skeptics of this anti-contagion-cat-army theory point to the decision of King Kazimierz the Great to close borders to foreigners and set up internal quarantines for the stricken. Polish borders were too vast to enforce however - although cities such as Krakow were walled and therefore effectively bordered.
As a response to COVID-19, Poland shut its borders on March 15, banning international flights and trains. Employees are working at home where possible, and shops are closed except for the essentials. Cats remain free to roam, and are under no obligation to work from home.
Read more about Poland’s Black Death history: No way, no plague: was Poland once an island of immunity?