In the Czech Republic, the government coalition led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, with the participation of the Social Democrats, reacted very early to the impending danger of the Covid-19 spreading. Air traffic between China and the Czech Republic was discontinued in early February and in later that month a travel warning about the coronavirus was issued regarding the severely affected areas in northern Italy. This soon resulted in a quarantine obligation for travellers returning from these areas. On 12 March, a 30-day state of emergency was declared. Most schools and kindergartens had already been closed by then.
After that, one thing followed another. All restaurants and all shops that are not necessary for essential goods were closed. A country-wide curfew was imposed that permitted only trips to work, the pharmacy, and grocery stores, as well as visits to the elderly and other people in need (with the exception of hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement homes). Wearing face masks outside of one’s own home became mandatory. Special shopping hours for older people were introduced. The ‘smart quarantine’ pilot project for the use of mobile phone data is currently underway. By using mobile device pings to carrier antennas and data from payment cards, all those people who were in contact with Covid-19 sufferers are determined and then examined for the virus by a test team within a few hours. If the pilot project in southern Moravia is successful, it could be expanded to the entire country after Easter.
The Czech Republic also led the way in border closures. Czech citizens and foreigners with permanent residence are not allowed to leave the country until further notice. Czech commuters can leave the country if they remain abroad for at least three weeks; when they return, they must undergo a 14-day quarantine. Medical personnel are exempted from this.
These early restrictive measures may have worked. Out of the population of 10.6 million, as of 9 April, 5,335 were ill, 104 died, and 243 recovered. Relative to the size of the population, this indicates significantly fewer cases than in Germany, although it should be borne in mind that in the Czech Republic significantly fewer tests are probably carried out. The increasing number of cases is a major challenge for the underserved health system. Only 7.5 per cent of GDP goes to the health sector. Because of low salaries, many doctors and nurses are looking for employment in other European countries.
The economic situation in the Czech Republic has been good until now: in recent years, growth rates have fluctuated between two and three per cent; at 32 per cent, the debt rate is the fourth lowest in the EU and unemployment is the lowest in the EU at a mere 2 per cent. But the shutdown will plunge the export-oriented country into a deep economic crisis. Experts expect an economic slump of four to ten percent. The Czech koruna has already fallen 8 per cent against the euro.
The Social Democratic Minister of Labour has presented an ‘antivirus’ package. According to the proposal, employees would receive a short-time allowance and employers would get a maximum government subsidy of 80 per cent. Since the Czech Republic is still one of the low-wage countries and even before the crisis, the income of the vast majority of employees barely allowed them to meet their basic needs, this short-time work benefit will throw many into a serious struggle for survival. Unemployment could rise to eight per cent. The ‘Covid programme’ was adopted for companies, thereby providing small and medium-sized companies with interest-free loans and giving small, one-time support to businesses left without income.
In the debates about suitable measures to combat crises, the trade unions are making themselves heard rather strongly. The ČMKOS umbrella organisation (the Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions) is also represented on the newly convened economic policy expert committee advising the government. It attaches great importance to making short-time employment as generous as possible and to generally maintaining the purchasing power of the population. It has come out in favour of suspending loan repayments and advocates preventing the usual high capital outflows abroad in order to cover the additional costs.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš presents himself as a European pioneer in the fight against the coronavirus. In principle, the population accepted all the measures introduced without much criticism, but its critics are finding fault with inadequate crisis management. Many do not trust Babiš to get this crisis under control. Minister of the Interior Jan Hamáček has been head of the crisis team since the beginning of April. He is also the leader of the Social Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether the Social Democrats will be able to gain any political capital out of this or whether they will be held liable for the crisis management of the at times rather polarising Babiš. If the Czech Republic fails to get a grip on the crisis, Prime Minister Babiš will have a ready scapegoat.
The Czech Republic did not comment on the call for European solidarity between Northern and Southern Europe. Even if the country is not currently a poster boy when it comes to democracy and the rule of law, solidarity for those affected must also exist between East and West, precisely because the value chains here are particularly closely linked.