I’ve been living here for four years already, so I have a lot to thank the Czech Republic for, but no experience has filled me with gratitude toward this country quite like the organized and coherent response to the coronavirus pandemic. The success of the Czech Republic’s pandemic response was the result of a swift response and many well-coordinated measures.
I had just returned from a trip abroad when the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the country on February 29. Unlike other countries, where the suggestion is merely theoretical, I was actually able to contact my doctor right away to see if I should self-isolate. Though a test wasn’t deemed necessary, he advised me to stay home and gave me a note to help me cancel another upcoming trip. Four days later, the country banned flights to and from countries with outbreaks effectively canceling my trip anyway.
By March 8, the Czech Republic instituted mandatory quarantine for anyone in contact with a coronavirus case, and two days later, this quarantine was mandatory for anyone entering the country regardless of potential contact. In both cases, violators would face a punitive fine of up to $135,000. The Czechs are generally considerate and law-abiding by nature, but the government wanted to make extra sure.
With just 60 confirmed cases, the government closed all schools and by the time we hit 100 cases on March 12, the government declared a state of emergency forcing a country-wide curfew of pubs and restaurants at 8 pm, closing large malls and restaurants and banning gatherings of more than 30 people. Just one day later, all gyms, libraries, museums, and other non-essential businesses were closed. Two days later, all restaurants and pubs were ordered closed except for delivery and all public events were cancelled.
On March 16 (with 379 confirmed cases in the country), we went into full lockdown mode. Borders were closed with all Czech citizens and residents banned from leaving and no non-residents allowed to return. On March 19, the government decreed that everyone must wear facemasks outside. This led to an amazing show of solidarity around the country, with people sewing masks in bulk to donate. Even the former first lady was running her own mini sewing studio. This led to 100% compliance with the facemask order, which was probably helped in part by the almost $1000 fine for not complying. In addition to these, essential businesses like pharmacies and grocery stores implemented daily elderly shopping hours and were required to provide gloves at the entrance to the store.
With measures tightened to banning any gathering outside to more than 2 people, the quarantine guidelines were extended to April 11. Strict lockdown was finally eased by April 7, nearly one month after it was put in place. But shops didn’t start to reopen until May 8, when only the outdoor areas of restaurants were allowed to open. It wasn’t until May 25 that restaurants, bars, and theaters were allowed to reopen fully though with a curfew.
These health and safety measures were offset by financial measures to help locals facing job and income loss. The day the state of emergency was declared, tax and loan payments were suspended. Simultaneous with the mandatory quarantine, the government announced they would be covering 80% of employee salaries for companies forced to close as a result of the measures. Companies would also be helped with postponed loan and rent payments. Freelancers, including foreign freelancers like me, were given a six-month reprieve from paying health and social security, and then an additional 500 crowns per day for the duration of the state of emergency.
Working residents weren’t the only ones to benefit from the government’s covid measures. To protect the homeless population and provide revenue to struggling hotels, the city of Prague started paying for over 300 homeless people to stay in local hotels starting March 26, while also providing them food. This project has been so successful that they’re extending it until March of next year.
For expats in the Czech Republic, the pandemic brought on a special kind of stress. My partner lost her job shortly after the state of emergency began, just two days after starting it. Despite only working two days, she got a month and a half of pay from them. Then we faced the daunting task of finding her a job in the middle of a pandemic. With an employee card, this meant she had 60 days to do that before it became invalid and she had to leave the country. With so many Czechs out of a job, the government had no incentive to help foreigners stay here… but they did it anyway. They extended the validity period on employee cards until mid-July, providing much needed aid to the foreign workers who live here.
What was the result of all these measures? On April 1, the Czech Health Ministry said the likeliest model showed 8,000 confirmed cases by mid-April and 14,000 by the end of April. At the time, that model was still good news, because even if it came to pass, the country’s hospital system would be equipped to handle the surge of hospitalizations. But the reality has turned out to be even better. It’s June 17, and we’re still 4,000 cases shy of 14,000 cases countrywide, and at the moment there are only 2,400 active cases.
Did these strict measures destroy the very fabric of the Czech economy? Not as much as you would think. Unemployment ticked up to 3.6% in May from 3% in February. The GDP is expected to decline 6.2% this year as a result of the pandemic, which isn’t so bad compared to the US’s March drop of 4.8%. If that 1.4% is the difference between 332 deaths and almost 120,000, I would say the effort was worthwhile. After all, only the living who feel safe and supported can keep an economy afloat.
People that had been cooped up since March are now out in droves spending money, going to restaurants and beer gardens and booking up cabins around the country for their summer holidays. The measures were so successful that the timeline for reopening was pushed up. Our borders have reopened to most countries in Europe, with visitors from other countries still required to bring a negative test result to enter the country. Things have gotten so good, in fact, that I already managed to squeeze in a short trip. Some hard-hit areas of the country like South Bohemia are even offering hotel and attraction vouchers to encourage visitors.
For someone so wordy, I am absolutely at a loss to describe how grateful I feel to live in a country that takes immediate actions to protect its citizens and (luckily) its foreign residents. We may not be New Zealand, but the Czech Republic did a hell of a job with its pandemic response. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a haircut to go get.