The masks made the Czech Republic the envy of Europe, now they blew it

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There are currently more new cases of Covid-19 per million registered population in the Czech Republic than in any other major country in the world. More than 11,100 new cases were reported in a single day on Friday, a new record. In the first 17 days of October, more people died from the virus in the Czech Republic than in the previous eight months of the epidemic combined.

The Czech medical chamber and the Minister of Health have called on Czech doctors living abroad to return home to help fight the virus. Medical students and people with medical training were also encouraged to come forward. Over 1,000 trained nurses who have left the profession have offered to return to help.

At the moment, Na Bulovce Hospital has enough beds for everyone. But it is to prepare for the worst.

“We have other extra beds prepared in other departments in case the capacity exceeds our current possibilities,” said Dr Hana Rohacova, chief medical officer of the hospital’s infectious disease clinic. Over the weekend, the government started setting up a temporary field hospital in Prague. Czech Health Minister Dr Roman Prymula told CNN he expected the additional beds to be needed by the end of the month.

It’s a mind-blowing development. Less than two months ago, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis boasted that his country was among the “best in Covid”.

While the Czech Republic is technically experiencing the second wave of the outbreak, this spring’s first looks like an insignificant blip on the radar compared to the current state. The Czech Republic was once one of the best performing countries in Europe at controlling the spread of the virus. Babis’ populist centrist government moved quickly to close the borders and implement a nationwide lockdown. Many other countries have done the same, but what sets Czechs apart is the requirement to wear a face mask by everyone, everywhere outside the home.

Czech data scientist Petr Ludwig was among those calling for the mask mandate in mid-March, months before Western health authorities or even the World Health Organization recommended it.

Ludwig had just flown from New York to Prague and says he was the only person on his flight covering his face. When he arrived home, he searched the scientific evidence supporting face masks and made a YouTube video explaining why he was convinced masks were the answer. The Czech language video attracted over 600,000 views in a country of just 10 million people. An English version of the video has been viewed over 5.7 million times.

A few days later, Babis announced the mask’s warrant.

“We did not convince the government, we convinced the public by [social media] influencers and then the government followed because our government is slightly populist. So they followed the public opinion, ”Ludwig told CNN.

Tomas Volny and his partner Barbora Duskova sew face masks in their apartment in Prague on March 17, 2020.

Medical masks were scarce at the time, which was one of the reasons the WHO did not recommend their use. Faced with the shortage, thousands of Czechs dusted off their sewing machines and participated in a war effort to make and distribute masks where they were needed. A group of volunteers created an interactive needs map that resulted in the distribution of over 600,000 masks, made mostly by individual volunteers, across the country.

The Prime Minister has converted – he even tweeted some advice to US President Donald Trump on March 29: “Try to fight the virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask reduces the spread of the virus by 80% … God bless America! ”

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Most Czechs obeyed the mask rule. The measure was not particularly popular with the masses, but it was extremely effective in controlling the spread of the virus. And that made the country an outlier. “Some people at WHO, for example, told us it was nonsense. Many other countries in the Czech Republic have told us that wearing masks is absurd. But the Czechs were doing well, ”said microbiologist Dr Omar Sery, who was also one of the early advocates of face masks.

The first wave of infection in the Czech Republic peaked at the end of March at 408 cases in one day. The highest single-day death toll was just 18 in April. As of June 30, the Czech Republic recorded no new deaths linked to Covid-19. On the same day, an open-air street party in Prague celebrated the end of the pandemic. Masks were not part of the dress code. Theaters reopened, meals inside returned, people were allowed to travel abroad. Even Babis, the Prime Minister, went to Greece for vacation.

In almost all respects, the country had returned to the normalcy that Europeans craved. It wouldn’t last long.

“We didn’t see any deaths, we didn’t see people with coronavirus in hospitals – the Czechs thought it was absurd and we didn’t need to wear masks,” said Dr Sery.

People dine at a communal table that spans Charles Bridge in Prague after coronavirus restrictions were eased on June 30, 2020.

When the government lifted the strict mask mandate over the summer, most people left theirs at home. The virus was slowly starting to make a comeback. Even the Minister of Health admitted that his country’s victory lap was premature.

“That’s true, because we had a lot of experts – and it wasn’t the epidemiologists and virologists – but they were saying, okay, the disease is there, but it’s very mild,” said the Dr Prymula, who has been on the job now for less than a month. “So they tried to get politicians to avoid harsh countermeasures. ”

In August, as the number of cases rises and schools must reopen, Rastislav Madar, a senior epidemiologist and coordinator of the government advisory group on coronavirus restrictions, called on the government to reinstate the strict mask mandate that was in effect in spring. . But when then health minister Adam Vojtech announced that masks would once again become mandatory in most interior spaces, Babis said no. A day later, Vojtech rescinded most of the new rules. Madar resigned a few days later.

As the Czech Senate elections approach in early October, Ludwig believes Babis’ decision was a populist political calculation.

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“During the first wave, [the government] was convinced that people wanted masks, so they pushed the masks. Now they are convinced that people do not want to wear masks. So they are against [the mask mandate]”, He declared.” After the elections they started to impose stricter rules again, but it was too late because we already had exponential growth.

These measures have forced schools, restaurants and pubs to close. Masks are mandatory in indoor public spaces and on public transportation, including its outdoor stops and stations, but the same strict mask mandate that seemed so effective in the spring has not been reinstated.

“Everyone in the Czech Republic hates wearing a mask, really. It’s not Taiwan, it’s not China where they wear a mask every day, ”Sery said.

Prymula denies that the decision was political. He says there are ongoing discussions about the potential expansion of the mandate to require masks outside as well. “But since it’s not just about wearing a mask, it’s a problem of other countermeasures, and in particular social contact, as some people still maintain social contact, even in private settings. This is the reason why the situation is still not under control, ”he said. .

Li-Lian Ahlskog-Hou contributed to this report from Berlin.

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