Czech authorities battle an increasingly Covid-skeptical population

The Czech government faces challenges from Czechs wary of coronavirus restrictions and vaccines

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: Daniel Deme

The Czechs are known by their neighbors for their good humor and world-class beer, but also for their all-engulfing and incurable skepticism. This feature shines through not only in their literature, politics, and — being the most atheistic among EU nations — their attitude towards religion. Now, it seems they are even willing to question advice received from health bodies, and turn their backs on the authority of their own government battling an increasingly desperate health crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Czech government, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, however, seems to have run out of patience when it comes to the nation’s lack of discipline and co-operation in following health advice. Czechia had some of the largest infection rates in the EU with cases topping 10,000 a day among their population of 10 million. The government, aware of its current precarious electoral position, has tried to appeal to the nation using educational methods, pleading with its citizens, rather than applying a punitive approach. But as there does not seem to be an end to the health crisis and the restrictions that go with it, Czech citizens are increasingly less inclined to cooperate with health authorities.
As the cost of the crisis for the economy is mounting, the government has decided to increase the severity of penalties for what they deem to be irresponsible behavior. Pubs and bars seem to be the worst offenders, as a large proportion of infections seems to have originated from their customers. The maximum penalties for individuals ignoring quarantine laws has just been increased to 50,000 Czech korunas (€1,900), and for legal entities, who were so far exempt from penalties, the sanctions may go up as high as 3 million korunas (€114,000). AP Photo/Petr David Josek Healthcare workers move a COVID-19 patient to the Motol hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. The hospital in Prague has admitted five patients in serious condition from hospitals that were overrun due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The police should be out more in the terrain and keep a closer eye on things handing out penalties. It appears that some of us won’t listen to anything else,” said Health Minister Jan Blatný.
However, a police spokesman had warned that the Czech police do not have the capacity to increase patrols or to make more inspections. The police force seems to be up to capacity, and anyone they were able to line up for quarantine policing work, has already been deployed. There are over 10,000 police checks in the country on a daily basis.
Although there is a wide agreement among decision-makers regarding the need to increase penalties and surveillance, there is also a sentiment among Czechs that the government should be careful with such policies not to evoke the spirit of the past. There is still a level of mistrust between many of the citizens of the former Soviet bloc and law enforcement agencies, hence the reluctance on the police’s side to be seen as heavy-handed in their response to quarantine violations.
Some of those least enthusiastic about embracing the need for caution appear to be teachers. Education Minister Robert Plaga had called on teachers to make use of available antigen tests for coronavirus, but a significant number of them had refused to do so, despite the tests being free of charge. So far, only about a third of teachers have submitted to voluntary tests.
Babiš, a native Slovak, has also vented his frustration with the lack of discipline, saying that the government had dedicated serious resources to create the necessary capacities for all-out testing, but people are simply not interested in working with the authorities on this. He had theorized that the main reason for people staying away from the test centers is that they are afraid of a positive test result, which would mean an automatic quarantine and a consequent loss of earnings. The only definitive solution, according to the Czech prime minister, is a whole scale vaccination of the population, for which plans are already being finalized.
Still, the Czech population remains one of the most skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine, and in vaccines in general, according to polling. The majority of Czechs have said they would reject a coronavirus vaccine.
According to Babiš, despite the increased severity of the second wave, it is not going to be as financially damaging as the first one. In the first wave, Czechia, alongside its neighboring countries, experienced a near total lockdown, while currently trade and business activity continues on nearly uninterrupted. Car manufacturing, which is one of the country’s main export items, has fallen by as much as one fifth in the spring, but the industry has experienced a bounce back, and the economic forecast for 2021 is promising.
Title image: Demonstrators gather during a protest against the government restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 on the occasion of the celebrations of the 31st anniversary of the pro-democratic Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in 1989, in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)


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