A year into Covid-19 pandemic, Czech ‘success story’ becomes cautionary tale

Photo: ČTK / Dalibor Glück

One year ago today, on March 1, 2020, the Czech Republic reported its first three confirmed cases of Covid-19. The government reacted quickly and resolutely to the threat of a pandemic, and for a time, the Czech Republic was considered a success story. Today, the country has among the highest coronavirus transmission and death rates in the entire world.

Mask tree,  photo: YouTube

Within the first few weeks after the first domestic Covid-19 cases were reported, the Czech Republic had declared a state of emergency, become the first EU country to close its borders, and imposed a nationwide curfew. As the government raced to secure protective gear, from China and elsewhere, Czechs took to sewing facemasks at home and giving them away – hanging them on “mask trees” – in an act of solidarity.

At the same time, a Czech motivational speaker and author named Petr Ludwig, convinced facemasks were key to curbing the spread of Covid-19, helped launch the #Masks4All campaign pushing for mandatory facemask use, which released an English-language video that went viral:

Masks and Critical Thinking - Why homemade masks really work against coronavirus #Masks4All

“We have an important message for all of you, especially if you live in a country that is right now facing the new coronavirus. The pandemic is growing exponentially in many countries. But the Czech Republic is one of the few in Europe that has significantly slowed down the spread of the virus. In this video, we would like to tell you what we did differently. And, mainly, we would like to help you to do the same.”

Illustrative photo: MrGajowy3,  Pixabay / CC0

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš posted that #Masks4All video on his Twitter account on March 28. “Czechs are sewing their own masks to fight Covid-19. Everyone in the world should follow our example and do the same,” he tweeted to the world, in English.

Indeed, the Czech Republic was then widely seen as a success story for its handing of the first wave coronavirus last spring, and early into the summer. After 66 days in place, in mid-May, the government lifted the state of emergency, after introducing a “smart quarantine” system to track individual cases and a “traffic light” system to identify outbreaks. Restrictions were eased in stages, under a five-step plan from April through June, allowing non-essential businesses to reopen, based on their size, and outdoor facilities and other factors.

Photo: ČT24

On June 30, thousands gathered on Prague’s iconic Charles Bridge to share food and drinks at a 500-metre-long table and bid a “symbolic farewell” to the coronavirus. At the time, there were fewer than 12,000 infections in the country of 10 million. About 350 people, most with pre-existing conditions, had died “with Covid-19”, as the fatalities were often reported, rather than “of Covid-19”.

By the end of August, as Czechs returned from their summer holidays, the death toll had only risen to 427. Despite warnings from the World Health Organization to remain vigilant, PM Babiš dismissed talk of a second wave and called on the media to “stop scaring people”.

Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

Some prominent doctors signed a public petition declaring “a much greater danger to the overall health of the people stemming from drastic government measures than from the coronavirus as such.” With a frustrated public pushing back, PM Babiš overruled a decision by his government’s Covid-19 crisis task force to again make facemasks mandatory.

In the first half of September – as students returned to the classrooms and adults to their workplaces after summer holidays – daily infection rates exceeded 1,000 for the first time. At the end of that month, PM Babiš admitted in a televised address to the nation that relaxing restrictions was a mistake. On October 5, a new state of emergency was declared. Daily infection rates soon topped 15,000, but after a lockdown in November, restrictions were again eased ahead of Christmas.

Photo: ČTK / Luděk Peřina

As in the rest of the EU and much of the world, the vaccination effort here has been far slower than anticipated, due to supply and logistical snags. But Czech hospital intensive care wards are dangerously near capacity. And now, a year to the day after the first cases were identified here, the Czech Republic has the second-highest incidence of coronavirus infections and third-highest death toll per capita in the EU. A new lockdown has begun, with tighter restrictions on movement, and the wearing of facemasks than ever before.

Source: © Statista 2021