Government facing huge dilemma as epidemic worsens

Illustrative photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

The coronavirus epidemic in the Czech Republic has severely worsened. The more contagious British mutation of the virus is spreading like wildfire in some regions and hospitals are dangerously near their capacity limit. At the height of the crisis the government faces a huge dilemma - whether to reopen shops and send children back to school as promised. 

Hospital directors and health workers around the country are ringing alarm bells. As Covid numbers rise hospitals are filling up with younger patients in a serious condition and there is no longer any doubt about the fact that doctors in some hospitals are having to perform triage – the act of deciding who should get life-saving treatment when faced with a lack of ventilators or beds in intensive care.

On Thursday morning there were just 165 vacant beds in intensive care units in the whole of the Czech Republic; in Prague there were just five beds left. The Karlovy Vary region has been pushing the government to negotiate a transfer of patients to neighbouring Germany and Health Minister Jan Blatný said medical students and specialists from outpatient clinics may be called on to help if the situation worsens in the coming days and weeks.

Jan Blatný,  photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl

The crucial question now is how the government is going to respond to the deepening crisis. Just a few days ago, it bowed to pressure from the opposition and regional governors for it to change its strategy and get rid of the restrictions that are not working. As a result is has promised to start sending more children back to school as of March 1 and reopen shops and supermarkets as of Monday February 22nd. The reasoning behind this was that it would disperse the number of people in supermarkets and if shops reopened under strict hygiene conditions the public might be more inclined to be cooperative in the matter of basic hygiene precautions such as facemasks, safe distance and use of sanitizers, which many simply disregard.

As the situation worsens, politicians and experts are caught up in heated arguments about what should best be done. Health Minister Jan Blatný said he would be willing to accept the reopening of shops on condition that people adhered to the safety norms, arguing that if they did not, the whole country would be in a similar situation as the three district now under strict lockdown. Education Minister Robert Plaga tweeted that sending children back to school is a top priority and the reopening of shops should wait, because the risk would be too great simultaneously. The President of the Czech Medical Chamber Milan Kubek, slammed the idea of easing the restrictions imposed on the assumption that people would start behaving more responsibly.

Milan Kubek,  photo: Dana Špicarová / Czech Radio

“That is the stupidest argument I have heard. It is like saying people can drive their cars at whatever speed they like and hope they will show discipline. Society doesn’t work that way. Many people here don’t take the epidemic seriously, they fear other things than Covid, they think this does not concern them. The government must not make the same mistake it made in the run up to Christmas when it reopened shops to please the public. It is high time we learnt from our mistakes.”

The government is to take a vote on the matter on Friday – and there is no doubt at all that this will be the hardest decision this Cabinet has made in office.