Reality in CR shows flight restrictions can’t halt coronavirus, says Prague WHO boss

Photo: ČTK/Igor Zehl

The first incidences of the new coronavirus in the Czech Republic were announced on Sunday, making the country one of around 70 around the globe to have now registered Covid-19. On Monday the prime minister said that flights between the Czech Republic and three Italian cities and South Korea were being suspended, and that a major skiing event would take place behind closed doors. I discussed the latest developments with Dr. Srdan Matic, head of the World Health Organisation’s Czech office.

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/David Taneček
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, has said that Italy didn’t handle the situation surrounding the coronavirus well. What does the Czech Republic need to do to handle it better?

“I think the most important problem with Italy was that sufficient attention was not given at the level of the health facilities in Italy, and that the appearance of the first people with the Covid-19 virus took them by surprise.

“As we all know, the situation developed very quickly and then suddenly a large number of people got infected.

“Then with a big movement of people that went from Italy – especially during this period, which is the skiing season – it got exported to other countries around Europe and also beyond Europe.

“So I think what was discussed and agreed last week at the Central Epidemiological Commission, which was to really focus efforts on strengthening the frontline – which is medical facilities and clinics in the Czech Republic – is a very good strategy.

“Importation was impossible to prevent and I think it was a very wise decision to focus on the points in the Czech Republic where the people who have been infected with the coronavirus would first appear.”

We’ve already seen an announcement that a Biathlon World Cup event in Nové město na Moravě will take place without spectators. Do you expect to see other moves like the cancelling of major events, and maybe even the closing of schools?

“It really depends how things are going to develop.

“I would say that at this point the recommendation to the general public is first of all to maintain hand, respiratory and food hygiene, as we have been repeating many times.

“That’s what people can do for themselves.

Srdan Matic, photo: archive of Srdan Matic
“But the other important element is to practice appropriate social distancing.

“So people should try to stay away from close contact with somebody who has any respiratory symptoms.

“People should try to avoid mass gatherings, because we have seen cases in some other European countries coming out from football games matches, in Milan.

“I think it is a wise decision to consider each mass event on a case by case event and to make appropriate decisions.”

Also the Czech Republic has suspended flights between this county and three cities in Italy and South Korea. How effective is that, given that people are flying into the Czech Republic from all over the world in any case?

“The WHO does not recommend any travel restrictions.

“Because, as real life has shown us in the Czech Republic, the people who have been infected have come through different means.

“So it draws attention away, I think, from the point where efforts should be directed, which is really the health facilities and epidemiological services here in the country.

“At the same time, bans on flights or partial or full closures of borders or restrictions on the free movement of people have a tremendous social and economic impact.

“It’s not only people who travel by planes – it’s also cargo and mail.

“These means of communication serve other purposes as well, not only moving people.

“And as we have seen, the first cases in the Czech Republic arrived by car.”

For many, if not most, people in the Czech Republic, an abstract threat suddenly feels a lot more real. From what I’ve read, many people have bought face masks. When would be the right time to start wearing them? Is it right now?

Photo: ČTK/Igor Zehl
“People should not wear masks. Because masks are not a sufficient means of protecting yourself.

“The appropriate masks – so it means not surgical masks, but masks with respirators – are only recommended for people who have a respiratory disease and for people who are caring for or are in close contact with people who are infected with the coronavirus.

“But for the general public it makes absolutely no sense and provides no protection for people – and gives a false sense of being safe.

“The problem also is that people do not use the masks properly.

“They do not put them on the way they should be worn, they do not take them off properly and also they don’t change them often enough.

“So masks are an insufficient means of personal protection for the general public.”