Warsaw — The immediate, human background to Poland's crisis is the daily -- and largely vain -- quest for even the basic ration of meat and the ordinary consumers' fear of still more rationing to come.
Shortages afflict every aspect of Polish life -- from industry to agriculture to housing, education, and health care. Gasoline, detergents, schoolbooks, even nails are in short supply.
Coal -- or rather the lack of it -- is at the root of this economic chaos. Recently, Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski called it the "oxygen without which the nation cannot live."
Coal has become Poland's Achilles' heel. Usually one of three major trading assets, coal exports and production have dropped drastically in the past year. In the first six months of 1981 exports fell to 8.5 million tons, compared with 20 million in the same period of 1980. Production this year will be some 20 million tons below target.
More hard currency from coal sales would mean more could be bought abroad. As it is, Poland has the cash to buy only about hAlf what it needs to meet present household quotas.
Moreover, meat bought this month has gone to cover unredeemed coupons for June. July's shortage of 13,000 tons will have to be covered next month. And so the cycle goes.
Each day brings Poles fresh burdens. The drop in coal production has reduced power stations' reserves to 10 days. Despite conservation efforts, power cuts in industry, heating, and general consume use are inevitable.
The gasoline shortage is affecting the private auto owner as well as industry. Engine oil is in critically short supply. Intermittent holdups in the transfer of crude oil slow production at the refineries.
Experts are citing American and Yugoslav experience with temporary rationing as they urge limiting private motoring to two weekends in every four. They say it would mean a 20 percent saving at the pumps.
Government reports on the state of the economy and the causes of the crisis spotlight the waste and neglect in many fields as a result of the disastrous capital investment ambitions and the runaway "boom" of the 1970s.
This year's harvest is under way, and prospects are good -- if crops can be gathered. Ministry of Agriculture inspections as the harvest began revealed hundreds of harvesters idled for want of batteries and tires.
On the small private farms that cultivate nearly 80 percent of the land, shortages include 600,000 forks, 150,000 scythes, 7,000 tons of nails, and 3,000 tons of chain. This sort of thing helps explain why almost a million farmers quit the land in the last decade.
Nearly 2 million Poles are waiting for housing. The average wait is seven years, but in many regions it exceeds 10.
Although it has the largest population of any East European country and led its neighbors in industrial development before World War II, Poland lags behind them in terms of hospital beds and health resources generally.
In most towns schools operate two and three shifts. Kindergartens are short at least 120,000 places. School aids, textbooks, and books supposedly on essential reading lists all fall short of demand.
In the textile city of Lodz (pop. 840,000) this week, there are daily protests over the meat shortage. Buses and automobiles make processions through the city, displaying slogans and appeals to the government. it is all to culminate Thursday in a big parade.
Such occurrences are unusual in the communist world, but there has been no effort to restrain them. Police stay in the background.
But if protest seems muted compared with the previous tense moments in this year-long crisis, it is because people know the government cannot conjure meat out of the air.
That explains why Solidarity compromised with the government over the meat cutback for August, accepting a one-month reduction of rations but deferring decision on the September ration in hopes more meat can be found by then.
More than anything else, however, people are tired. One begins to sense a mood of resignation that approaches despair that things will ever improve. This could present the government with even greater difficulty than anger as it tries to get the country moving. Increasingly, one doubts Poland can get out o f its vicious cycle alone.