“I am taking it minute by minute” – Foreigners in the Czech Republic on quarantine and being cut off from their families

Photo: Terri Sharp, Pixabay / CC0

There are more than half a million foreigners living in the Czech Republic, according to data from the Ministry of Interior. With the COVID-19 epidemic in full swing across Europe they have found themselves in a strange situation in recent weeks, living in a country tightly restricted by quarantine and often unable to travel home to visit and support their families. Radio Prague International spoke to some of them to find out more about how they have been impacted by the situation and what they think of the measures that have been taken.

Illustrative photo: Terri Sharp,  Pixabay / CC0

Photo: ČTK / Jaroslav Ožana
In a space of two weeks life in the Czech Republic has transformed from more or less completely normal into a tightly controlled and limited regimen of going to work, buying food and spending as much time alone at home as possible.

Borders are closed, travel is severely restricted and a statewide quarantine has been instituted, where leaving the house without covering ones face is not allowed.

Despite this, there is a serious shortage of facemasks, respirators and certain medical equipment seen as essential in handling the epidemic. Many in the country have therefore resorted to sewing their own masks, an activity encouraged by the government.

Photo: Miguel Á. Padriñán,  Pixabay / CC0
One of those who are doing so, is 26-year-old Anna from Moldova, who moved to the Czech Republic less than a year ago.

“I am trying to sew masks, but I still need practice because it is not so easy. I am sewing them for my boyfriend and housemates for when I run out of masks, because I only have a few left.”

She was one of those better prepared for the quarantine. Identifying the danger of the virus when it was still emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Anna did not hesitate and ordered basic medical equipment online while it was possible.

However, to Anna’s frustration, her housemates were initially less concerned and continued to travel abroad.

Michael Kiearans,  photo: archive of Michael Kiearans
“First they were skeptical and they thought it was just a simple flu, but with time they kept seeing news about it and they saw how strict the measures were getting across Europe, so they probably figured out that it was more serious than they initially thought. Now they are more cautious. We are making sure we all wear masks and gloves when we go out and we try to help each other.”

Canadian Michael Kiearans, has been living in the Czech Republic for decades now. As a 70-year-old he is one of those identified as particularly at risk from the virus.

“What happened in Italy was what really indicated to me that this is a very serious problem. That it grew and spread in Italy so quickly and so drastically was what indicated to me that we have a really grave issue. I haven’t sewn any facemasks, but my wife has sown a couple of them for ourselves.”

As an English teacher Mr Kiearans has found his way of work rapidly transformed since the government stepped in with the extensive preventative measures.

“It has shut down my work. Basically, my teaching has stopped. What I am doing, trying to do, is build up online classes. I am trying to organize and get students to meet me on Skype and Zoom, so that we can hold classes that way. However, that was not my usual way of teaching. I taught face to face because I enjoyed that teaching more than online, but now we are left with teaching online, so that is what I am trying to establish. It is no picnic.”

Illustrative photo: Moritz Lübken,  Pixabay / CC0
He says he hopes that the teaching schools he has been working for until now have the necessary capital to survive, as he is worried that if the situation drags out it could be devastating for these businesses.

Anna, who works in one of the hardest hit sectors, a company that organizes international events, says that she and her colleagues at work are worried about the situation too. With travel bans in place across many European states, they find themselves in the odd situation of inviting clients to conferences which they have no certainty will actually take place.

“I don’t know if we are going to close down, probably. I hope not though. As you can imagine, people don’t want to travel right now, they can’t even. That is understandable. We are hoping we can rely on government incentives and financial aid for businesses and entrepreneurs. Hopefully we can pull through this, but yeah, at the moment everything is very uncertain.”

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK / Roman Vondrouš
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Babiš said at a press conference that the government could designate up to a trillion crowns in support of businesses hit by the consequences of the epidemic, with CZK 100 billion designated for immediate help and the rest to be used for providing guarantees for the interest payments businesses have to pay to commercial banks.

A further CZK 10 billion is to be redirected from EU operational programs to the state owned Czech Moravian Guarantee and Development Bank to be used as support as well. The bank has already registered financial requests worth CZK 5 billion, but only CZK 600 million have so far been actually allocated to the bank as part of the first wave of emergency measures.

Payam Razi,  photo: archive of Payam Razi
One of those who have been working on an application for government financial aid is Iranian-American Payam Razi, who opened up his Prague 1 arthouse cinema Screenshot just six months ago.

“We were just like any other business, trying really hard to pass the first six months and learn more about what we are doing. We were expecting that from this time, the beginning spring and the approaching summer ahead, we would finally see the result of all of the work we had put in there.

“Right when the news came about closing down bars and restaurants we had four screenings completely sold out. As an Iranian-American I had a very interesting programme set for the Persian New Year which included a theater play, music and film screenings, but all had to be canceled.

“The unfortunate part of all of this is that we don’t know when we will be opening up again. Now that the staff has left and all of the opportunities have been lost, it seems to be quite difficult.”

“The unfortunate part of all of this is that we don’t know when we will be opening up again. Now that the staff has left and all of the opportunities have been lost, it seems to be quite difficult.” – Payam Razi, Iranian-American

He says that the government business support measures are a great programme, but he is not sure if he will be eligible as the specifications do not make it clear whether it extends to foreigners and those with permanent residency in the country.

Not all companies are suffering from a rapid fall in clients. Aileen from Panama, who has been working for the Czech branch of an international health care technology company for over a year now, says that they are currently supporting the government and hospitals in a number of countries.

“The main priority here is to make sure that all of the employees are safe. Local regulations apply, but globally we have been supported to really work from home as much as possible.”

Aileen with her husband Pierre,  photo: Aileen’s archive
She lives in Prague with her husband Pierre. Both have been feeling the distance from their family at home.

“I think that it is definitely hard to be away during these times. At this point in time, I would say we are very glad that we have secured a group of friends, so I would say that we are supporting each other as we are all away from our family. But yes, in terms of contact, we are in regular contact with them, as the number of cases in Panama is also increasing.

“Everyone is going a little crazy about the situation and checking on us all of the time to see how things are going. We are now in an era where we have the tools to not really feel the distance anymore.”

Just as all of the other interviewees, they use social media to keep in touch.

For some however, this is not enough during these times. Payam Razi says he is concerned about his 74-year-old father.

“He has been quarantining himself for about a month. Me and my brother we are both very concerned. The only way I can get informed about his well-being is by calling him every day, but so far so good. None of my family members are exposed to the virus. But I keep worrying about him until the crisis is over.”

“Everyone is going a little crazy about the situation and checking on us all of the time to see how things are going.” – Aileen, Panama

Asked about what the situation is like in Iran, he says the measures are harsher than what he is currently experiencing here.

“What I hear from Iran is that you cannot enter any grocery stores or big malls without being checked by the authorities. I know that the army has been getting involved in controlling the situation and that is after 10,000 positive test results, so I think it is understandable that the measures in Iran are way harsher than here.

“However, I think that the Czech Republic did the right thing in closing down a lot of the cultural places, bars, restaurants and borders very quickly, ahead of other countries. I think they had a good sense of how quickly this virus can spread and I think they have controlled the situation well so far.”

Photo: ČTK / Kateřina Šulová
Anna from Moldova agrees, but says that more could be done to inform the public about why the restrictions are being put in place.

“I think the Czech Republic is doing everything that they should to be doing. Compared to Moldova I think it is better, although I am surprised how organized Moldova is right now. They declared an emergency.

“The advice I would give to the Czech Republic is maybe to inform the public why exactly these measures are necessary and why it is important to wear a mask and why they are doing this. Some people do not understand why such draconian measures are being taken and do not understand that it is for their own good.”

“Some people do not understand why such draconian measures are being taken and do not understand that it is for their own good.” – Anna, Moldova

Not all of the interviewees have the same impression. Aileen’s husband Pierre says he is impressed with the attitude of the locals.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I see that the people are pretty calm…If you see people in the street and in the shops they are pretty calm, doing what they have to do, taking the necessary measures and that is it.”

It is true that not all have been as accepting of the restrictions in the country. Harsh criticism was leveled on the government by some artists, who have been forced to close down their performances. However, just as in other countries, online concerts and similar activities have been increasingly used to deal the problem. Meanwhile, actors in the municipal theatre in the Moravian city of Zlin have been doing their part in the statewide public effort to sew masks.

“I am taking it minute by minute as it comes. It is coming fast. It’s where we are at. The sooner we accept it, I think, the better it is going to be.” – Michael, Canada

Canadian Michael Kierans says he cannot recall experiencing anything as serious in his 70 years as the current situation. However, he insists on remaining an optimist, since he has to.

“I am taking it minute by minute as it comes. It is coming fast. It’s where we are at. The sooner we accept it, I think, the better it is going to be.

As of Friday, nearly 700 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the country although none have died thus far.