Panama-born Aileen Rodriguez on living in Prague and working in health care tech during COVID-19

Aileen Rodriguez, photo: archive of Aileen Rodriguez

Aileen Rodriguez is from Panama but now lives in the Czech Republic. Working on the business side of the health care technology sector, she is responsible for the wider Central and Eastern European region and has seen her workload pile up significantly over the past months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To find out more about how she views life in the Czech Republic and the country’s coronavirus response, I invited her to our studio and began by asking how she ended up in Prague.

“To be honest, I was given a choice. I had never been to the Czech Republic or Prague, but [my employer] said I have two options – either Warsaw or Prague. So I googled them and Prague looked beautiful. That is kind of how my initial choice came about.

“As far as the other things that I knew about the Czech Republic at that time are concerned, it may sound superficial, but I knew about the beer. I told myself: ‘Well, you cannot go wrong with a country that has very good beer’.”

So, you literally googled the country. It was like that? Wow.

“I had never been to the Czech Republic or Prague, but [my employer] said I had two options - either Warsaw or Prague. So I googled them and Prague looked beautiful.”

“Yes” (laughs)

Had you ever been to Europe before?

“Yes, I had been to Europe as a tourist. I had been to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Iceland and a couple of other countries, but I had never ended up in the Czech Republic somehow.”

How long have you been here now?

“Two years.”

You said you had already visited Western European countries. Was there any culture shock that you encountered when you moved here?

“I wouldn’t say a shock. I think that coming from the other side of the ocean is always a big difference, especially when we talk about the history and how old the cities are. However, I would say it was mainly the food, which was a big difference from Italy for example.”

We often do stories where we look into developments regarding the process of acquiring work visas for the Czech Republic. From the perspective of someone outside the European Union, was this a simple process for you, or was it difficult?

“I would not call it simple. First of all, I was lucky that my company chose to transfer me. The process that they had to go through to get me here was a bit complex. Rather than the three month process we initially thought would take place, it actually took six to eight months. However, once I finally got here, the process was actually very smooth.

“My husband’s experience is that he is now in the process of getting his own work permit and that has been quite hard, because it is really difficult to get a job if you do not have a working permit here.”

Prague, photo: Camille Montagnon

“Some countries were definitely better prepared than others” – coronavirus in Central Europe

If we move on to the job that you do in the Czech Republic, I understand you are in charge of the regional branch of the business marketing side of a large international company active in the health care technology sector. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you, because it must be an interesting area to work in during the coronavirus pandemic. Could you tell us what it is exactly that you do and what you specialisation is?

“Yeah. Sure. I am responsible for business marketing in the Central and Eastern European region. That is 19 countries altogether including the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Ukraine all the way down to Albania and the Balkans.

“I can tell you that my COVID-19 lockdown was very hectic and a big roller-coaster.”

“Basically, the category I am responsible for, or the portfolio we look for, is around critical care, which was crucial during the coronavirus crisis. I can tell you that my COVID-19 lockdown was very hectic and a big roller-coaster.

"The demand of many countries [for such equipment] went through the roof, because they needed to better equip their hospitals to take care of their patients. You would see different situations in different countries of course, but there were some that were designating specific hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. These hospitals needed to be 100 percent equipped in that regard, compared to the average hospital. There was a lot of demand for patient monitors, ventilators and so on. But that was, of course, a worldwide trend.

“What I can say from my impressions regarding all of the countries in the region, some were definitely better prepared than others. In the case of the Czech Republic, for example, I believe they have been equipping their hospitals for the past two or three years with the right equipment. When the pandemic hit, it was certainly not such a disaster, or [more specifically] there was not such a desperate need to secure more of it, but rather a case of fixing and patching. On the other hand, some countries began massive orders, because they were lacking [the equipment].”

“The PPE issue was a worldwide problem, because the demand was higher than five or six years’ worth of supply.”

It should be said that the Czech Republic had its own problems with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as facemasks. Many people had to sow them themselves. However, from what I understand, you are saying that when it comes to technical health care equipment such as ventilators they were quite well prepared?

“Yes, I would say so. It is also my personal opinion based on the angle from which I was looking at things. The PPE issue was a worldwide problem, because the demand was higher than five or six years’ worth of supply, which also reflects on any equipment that was necessary for treating the pandemic.

“I would say that the period between March and May perhaps was the hardest part, because countries were assessing what they needed and how they could get it. Now you see that countries are more and more looking at the question of what could happen if there is a second wave. There are a lot of things happening in terms of preparing for the eventuality of a second wave.”

Illustrative photo: Mircea Iancu, Pixabay / CC0

The whole region, if we speaking generally, did quite well in terms of handling the pandemic compared with many other parts of the world. There are various explanations for why that was the case. You could say that it was an early lockdown, or, according to one article in an American paper, it was the Eastern European attitude gained from the experiences of living in a totalitarian regime (specifically communism and intense conflict in the twentieth century). I don’t know exactly what that quite means, but could you tell us from your perspective how big a reason behind this relative success was having the right technical equipment?

“I don’t know about it being a big reason. A very important part of it is the culture. I don’t know if it is part of whatever experience with a totalitarian regime, but sticking to the measures and being responsible definitely was the biggest reason, at least if I compare it to what I hear from Panama.

“As far as the other part is concerned, I cannot tell that everyone had the right equipment. However, the advantage of having the right equipment in hospitals is that doctors are able to actually pay the right amount of attention to patients and not towards fixing the tools they have.

“This is also what we see developing now and what may be a trend in the future. Namely, that healthcare systems will dedicate more attention towards what we call value-based-care. That means focusing on outcomes rather than prices of procedures. In other words, making sure that when the patient leaves the hospital he or she will not return.”

“If you have something filed away on paper accessing it means a lot of human contact, so the trend we are seeing overall is that digitisation of the health care sector is being pushed really hard.”

Since I have you here I have to ask you. Are there any rumours or anything of the sort in your sector regarding coronavirus care? By that I mean how it will develop in the coming months or even years. People talk of a coming second wave and I was wondering if you know anything more about that.

“I don’t know if a second wave will come. However, what I can tell you is that the coronavirus is forcing health care systems to become less dependent on paper. You would not imagine that in this day and age people are actually writing something on paper and filing it somewhere, but this is the case.

“If you have something filed away on paper accessing it means a lot of human contact, so the trend we are seeing overall is that digitisation of the health care sector is being pushed really hard because of the coronavirus. Therefore, hospitals and health care systems in general are going to have to start thinking about how to be more connected and having more decision making based on data, basically entering into a more digitised and modernised era.

“This is what we think will be accelerated due to COVID-19 as hospitals prepare for a second coronavirus or a new pandemic, with experts saying that we will have something worse in the next five years.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“You need to adapt” – living in Czechia as a foreigner

If I change the topic a little bit, just from listening to you it sounds like you really like the Czech Republic. You have said many positive things. I was wondering if there is something you find is lacking in the Czech Republic, something you would like to see changed?

“Living in the Czech Republic is also quite easy when compared to Panama. Not needing a car for example is a big thing for me.”

“I would say that perhaps as a foreigner you are not aware of everything. This is also a consequence of not speaking the language. You are very much in your own bubble where you do not see a lot of things happening that may be affecting the Czech population.

“What I saw in the media the other day with this whole thing about racism [going on] was that it is still quite latent here. I have not experienced racism personally, but it seems that it is still around. I cannot say if it is a nationwide problem, or if it is just a cultural, historical approach to foreigners in general.

“Other than that, I have read many things where people talk about the [bad quality of] service in the Czech Republic. I cannot say it is the best, but I also do not come from a country where it was better to compare. (laughs)

“I guess I didn’t have any particular expectations and, as a foreigner, the most important thing to understand is that you are coming to someone else’s culture. If you were coming to someone else’s house, you are not going to do what you want, you are going to adapt to what the local [custom] dictates.”

One of the reasons why I asked you is because you are quite active in the expat sphere. You meet quite a lot of them and I was wondering if you guys talk about this and if there are any points that are brought up?

“I think that the most important thing is not to expect that you will arrive in a country where you will just be welcomed and given a work visa right away.”

“I don’t know. Again, I think that sometimes it is the attitude of the people when you come and don’t  speak their language. It can be perceived as rude, although that is also somehow tied to the service.

“I can only try to put myself in their shoes and if I do not understand what a person is saying I can get frustrated. So it might be that, or just that they are rude, but I would not know.” (laughs)

Yes. Czechs are quite touchy about their language. It is just a shame that it is so hard to learn.

“Yes it is. I have tried, but I am not there yet.” (laughs)

Long-term wise, do you like the Czech Republic enough that you would like to settle here, or do you think of it as just a short-term thing for you?

“No. I really like the Czech Republic. I really like Prague. And, yes, I think that, unless I had to transfer, I would probably like to stay here. We have really settled here nicely. I really like our neighbourhood and the city. I have also not explored the country much yet, so there is definitely still a lot more to do here.

“Living in the Czech Republic is also quite easy when compared to Panama. Not needing a car for example is a big thing for me, just as is having great nature just around the corner and, of course, great beer is always a plus.”

If you had to give a tip to foreigners who are perhaps considering moving to the Czech Republic, what would you tell them? Especially in regards to tips about what to ensure you have ready before you come from your personal experience.

“The Czech Republic is beautiful; just make sure you do not expect it to be like your own country.”

“I think that the most important thing is not to expect that you will arrive in a country where you will just be welcomed and given a work visa right away. I think the Czech labour market is very prepared and solid so they are really cherry picking, which is good, because it means that the locals have more opportunities if I can compare this to back home where foreigners sometimes have more opportunities.

“So this is really good, but if I had to give tips to people - the Czech Republic is beautiful; just make sure you do not expect it to be like your own country. You need to adapt. It takes some time to learn what is good or not. For example, if you do not finish your beer, they will not remove it from your table. So, do not think that the service is rude because your glass is still there. It is because it is your fault for not finishing your beer.” (laughs)