The COVID-19 crisis in rural Czechia

Přibyslav, photo: Ben Skála, Benfoto, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

The fight against COVID-19 has affected the life of millions of Czechs. As in most European countries, free movement of people is restricted no matter whether they live in big cities or small towns and villages. Vit Pohanka looks at how people are coping with the crisis in rural Czechia.

Přibyslav,  photo: Ben Skála,  Benfoto,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Přibyslav is a picturesque historic small town of some 4 000 inhabitants in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. There are fewer people than there probably would be on a normal weekday on the main square. Still, the locals seem to go about their shopping as usual – of course, wearing face masks and keeping a safe distance of some 2 meters from each other. What do they think? In times like these, is it better to live in a small town like this or are people better off in the big cities like Prague or Brno? Ms. Doležalová is a nurse and works for the local branch of a Catholic charity organization called Charita:

“I think small towns are better prepared to deal with the pandemic as the people here take care to follow all the rules and keep an eye on each other to make sure that everyone is being cautious. There are, of course, fewer people here and that plays a big part as well.”

Petr Honzátko is a father of two. He works for a used car dealer and lives with his wife and kids in a small village some 8 kilometers away from Přibyslav:

“I think the situation is definitely worse for old people since they cannot use public transport and they are scared to go outside. The amount of people that volunteer to do their shopping is probably not large enough to keep them sufficiently supplied with food. We do our shopping in this small grocery store in Přibyslav since it is a local business and, at the moment, also safer than the big chain grocery stores. The situation is also tough with small children since they cannot attend school and are stuck at home bored. The number of divorces and cases of people running from their families will probably increase as a result of this situation.”

‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ –or the voice of the people is the voice of God, goes the famous Latin phrase. But people do not always agree with each other. So, I put the same question to someone with a higher degree of official authority. Martin Kamarád has been mayor of Přibyslav for quite a few years, now. What does he think?

Martin Kamarád,  photo: archive of Martin Kamarád
“I believe that it is easier to cope with these measures in a small town than in a big city since we have nature all around us. Even though the forests have been dwindling in recent years, one can still go to clear his head in one. Having to go through this situation stuck in a cramped flat somewhere in the city would be decidedly trickier.”

Our daily lives have been seriously restricted for more than six weeks now. With the benefit of hindsight, how does the mayor of a small town like Přibyslav see the information flow from the central government to the provinces in the first days and weeks of the crisis?

“The first ten days were very chaotic indeed. There was a delay between the time when new information was presented at press conferences and when we would receive any official directives. Those arrived with a delay of up to ten hours. So, citizens would ask us questions on how to proceed according to the new rules but, at that time, we only knew about as much as they did. I must say that since those first days, this has gotten much better.”

“I do not want to criticize any specific steps that have been taken by the government so far. We must realize that we are facing something that we have never had to face before. So, mistakes are of course going to be made, and it is difficult to say whether something should have been done this way or another. But what I see as the main problem is that, in the beginning, the state misinformed us about the amount of protective equipment that was available in this country.”

Přibyslav and other villages in the area have been COVID–19 free so far. So, right now, mayor Kamarád is primarily worried about the economy. The biggest local employer is a branch of a German company called ACO Industries that makes mainly stainless-steel drainage and other engineering products. And there is already talk about potential layoffs:

“The long-term unemployment in Přibyslav is relatively low which is a good sign. Nonetheless, ACO, the main employer in town, produces goods for export and ships mainly to customers based abroad. And since the domestic and foreign markets are now paralyzed, the company is, unfortunately, already considering letting part of their workforce go. It cannot predict how the business will go in the upcoming months.”

And it is not just about local unemployment. The economy as a whole is heading into a potentially deep recession. And that will inevitably have a negative impact on the town’s finances:

Illustrative photo: ČTK/Dalibor Glück
“The last two or three years were very good for the town budget as well as the budget of the country as a whole. We tried to use the income to improve the overall financial situation of Přibyslav. We paid off a loan we took to rebuild our school and managed to save some 116 million crowns or nearly 5 million US dollars for investment in the next few years. Now I am proposing that we use this money to give contracts to our local businesses so that they can keep or even give new jobs to people from our town. We have to help both smaller and larger businesses to keep afloat, so to speak. I think they should be alright this year because they still have work and contracts from the past. I think the main problem will start in the financial year 2021/2022.”

To sum it up: on the one hand, it is easier to cope with at least some of the restrictions on social life and public meetings out in the country than in a big city. That does not mean, however, that the locals are free of worries and even fear. The economic growth and prosperity, that people in this part of Europe have been enjoying in the past few years, is most likely gone. Harder times are coming, whether you live in the capital city of Prague, or a small town in the country.