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Czech Republic introduces drastic measures to deter spread of COVID-19

This week's most influential Czech magazines, Respekt and Reflex, dedicate their covers to the COVID-19 pandemic. Respekt's cover (left): “Coronavirus changes the world.” Reflex (right): “Panic: the best friend of politicians. People, don't go nuts!” with photo of Czech President Miloš Zeman. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

The Czech government announced drastic measures on March 10 to curb the spread of COVID-19, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11. The Central European country prepares for the return of over 10,000 of its citizens from locked-down Italy, a popular skiing destination for Czechs at this time of the year.

The official Twitter account of the Czech government announced the closing of schools and public gatherings:

The state has banned cultural, sports and social events to be attended by more than 100 people, schools are shutting down.

The news came as a surprise for many Czechs, as up until then the government had not announced any measures against the coronavirus.

According to leading Czech daily iDnes, the measures will directly affect over 1.8 million people in a country of 10 million:

Podle statistik ministerstva školství je v ČR kolem 4 200 základních, 1 300 středních škol. Do základních škol chodilo loni zhruba 941 000 dětí, do středních 420 800. Učilo je celkem kolem 127 000 pedagogů. Vysoké školy studovalo loni přibližně 289 000 lidí.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education of the Czech Republic, there are about 4,200 primary schools and 1,300 middle schools. About 941,000 children attended primary schools in 2019, and 420,800 secondary ones. About 127,000 teachers were educating them. Last year, about 289,000 people studied in universities.

The closing of schools is expected to last from two weeks to one month, according to state officials. While the plan makes sense from a public health perspective, it could also add a burden on working families who now will have to manage childcare during the daytime.

The government said to be considering calling in medical students in their final years to replace medical staff who need to take care of their children at home.

A possible reason for the sudden change in government policy is the expected return of over 10,000 Czechs who are vacationing in Italy. According to Czech Radio:

Lidi vracející se z Itálie mají povinnost ohlásit se po návratu lékaři a zůstat ve dvoutýdenní karanténě. V celé Itálii je podle Asociace cestovních kanceláří zhruba 12 tisíc českých občanů.

People returning from Italy have the obligation to declare themselves to a doctor and stay in quarantine for two weeks. According to the Czech Association of travel agencies, there are about 12,000 Czech citizens across Italy.

The latest figure for the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic is 64 and there have been no reported deaths so far. Updates are provided several times a day with the Ministry of Health on their Twitter account: 

Update about COVID-19 in the Czech Republic: at this moment 64 patients have been confirmed as testing positively out of 1,358 persons tested. We will update our information during the day and will publish it here on Twitter and also on http://mzcr.cz. – The ministry of health. March 11, 2020

According to medical experts, the number of cases could be higher as tests aren't widely available.

One of the most at-risk segments of the population is people over 65, who represent close to 20 percent of the Czech Republic's population. As epidemiologist Rastislav Maďar points out, the closure of schools, while necessary, puts them at a higher risk:

Virus tak trochu směřujeme tam, kam jsme nechtěli. Spousta rodičů nemůže zůstat doma a malé děti skončí u babičky s dědečkem. Seniorům celou dobu říkáme, že je pro ně klíčová vlastní prevence a bezpečná zóna téměř dva metry ze všech stran. Ale s malým vnoučetem se to dodržuje velmi těžko.

We end up pushing the virus into an unwanted direction. A lot of parents cannot stay home thus small kids end up staying with their grandparents. We keep telling the elderly they have to maintain a 2-meter safety distance from all sides a a form of key prevention. But with a small grandchild, one can hardly apply this kind of measure.

Sign in an elderly center in Prague 8th district: “Due to exceptional government measures, this social club for the elderly is closed. All cultural activities for elderly people are canceled until further notice”. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Tourism impact

The Czech Republic is a major tourist destination: It received over 10 million foreign visitors in 2019, thus one foreign visitor per every Czech citizen. Many of those tourists are from countries currently heavily affected by COVID-19, such as Italy, China, and South Korea.

On March 9, the Czech government approved measures that will allow small and medium businesses that have been severely affected by the consequences of COVID-19 to apply for loans at a zero-interest rate.

Yet a sense of gloom has already dawned on the tourist industry. Silvia Suto, a blogger, who is also the co-owner of a Persian restaurant in Prague wrote this on March 9:

780. Sedmset osmdesát korun českých. Celá naše dnešní tržba. V sobotu! Pouhý týden poté, co u nás nebyla pomalu ani jedna volná židle a personál nestíhal. Lidi, řekněte nám, budete k nám chodit, pokud budeme zde všichni zaměstnanci restaurace nosit i roušku? Pomůže to? Vrátíte se k nám? Máme pro vás nechat otevřeno, nebo to máme definitivně zabalit?  Cítím se jako na počátku tunelu. Temné chodby, na jejíž konci zatím žádné světélko nespatřuji. A na tunelech není nejvíce děsivá jejich temnota. Je to jejich neznámá délka.

780. Seven hundred eighty Czech crowns [34 US dollars]. That was our entire income for today. On a Saturday! Only one week before you couldn't find an empty chair in our restaurant and our staff couldn't handle the work. People, tell us, will you come if we all wear masks? Will that help? Will you come back? Should we stay open for you, or should we just close down and go home? I feel as I were standing at the entrance of a tunnel. Dark stairs, with no light in sight. The scariest part of tunnels is not the darkness. It is the fact you never know how long they are.

Meanwhile, large cultural events have been canceled, including film festivals. State museums, such as the National Museum in Prague, have also been closed down indefinitely:

Due to the exceptional situation caused by the coronavirus, all buildings of the National Museum are closed to the public until further notice. We apologize for any inconveniences.

From denial to hoaxes

The March 10 announcement is a real shock for Czech society. The policy of the Czech government indicates it downplayed the risks of COVID-19 until the last minute. On March 1, the government announced that five tons of humanitarian aid would be sent to China, including masks and gloves. On March 10, it said that part of that help would remain in the country as not all of it had been shipped.

A major source of concern, as in other countries, is the ongoing spreading of fake news regarding the origin of the virus, as well as the measures people should take to protect themselves.

One video posted on January 26 and viewed by over 370,000 people claims that U.S. companies and organizations will make millions of dollars with a future vaccine, and suggests that the virus was created in the U.S.

The author of the 15-minute conspiracy video, all in Czech, is Antonín Baudyš, a self-proclaimed astrologist who also heads a Eurosceptic political party.

Cybercrimes linked to the pandemic have also been reported, such as phishing scams. This article at iDnes says:

Jedním z mnoha příkladů je třeba webová stránka vaccinecovid-19\.com. Maily z ní odesílané vyzývají adresáty, aby se nechali otestovat na koronavirus. Stránka byla vytvořena 11. února v Rusku. Web nabízí prodej „nejlepšího a nejrychlejšího testu na detekci koronaviru za fantastickou cenu 19 tisíc ruských rublů (asi 7 tisíc Kč)“.

One of the main examples is the website vaccinecovid-19.com. Emails sent from that address invite the targets to take a test for COVID-19. That page was created on January 11 in Russia. The page offers “the best and fastest test to detect the coronavirus for the incredible price of 19,000 Russian rubles (30 US dollars).

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