The Pandemic in V4. What Went Wrong?

Having prided themselves on being the coronavirus champs in the spring, the Visegrad countries have ended up amongst the losers in the fall.

This historically accurate episode will go down as one of the weirdest in history. At the end of August, when Miloš Vystrčil, chairman of the Czech Senate, set out for Taiwan, his visit took place amidst epidemiological measures that seemed at the time quite astonishingly strict. Every member of his delegation had to undergo two PCR tests for Covid-19 before departure, and were informed upon arrival that they would have to submit to two further tests, one immediately after landing and another halfway through their five-day visit.

The first shock awaited them when boarding the plane the Taiwanese government had sent for them. Although the entire delegation was wearing face masks, the crew onboard the direct flight from Prague to Taipei was equipped with respirators, visors, masks and gloves similar to those worn by hospital staff in infectious wards caring for patients with Covid-19.

Once in Taiwan, every member of the over 100-strong delegation was prohibited from setting foot outside their assigned hotel, apart from the few scheduled activities. They had to wear masks throughout their stay, except for mealtimes and the time spent by the outdoor swimming pool on the roof of a designated section of the hotel they had been assigned. In the hotel itself, a restaurant, café and several floors were reserved for the Czech delegation. Meetings between Czech and Taiwanese businessmen were held in a café set aside for this purpose. Not only did everyone wear a mask but the two sides were also separated by plexiglass.

Dozens of staff were assigned to keep an eye on the Czechs to make sure they observed all the rules at all times. They were allowed to move freely only along certain corridors, marked red, and could use only a few designated elevators. When a Czech journalist asked the manager of the five-star hotel what would happen to the establishment after the delegation’s departure, he replied without a trace of a smile: “It will be blown up.”

He was exaggerating, but only slightly. Every single Taiwanese who met anyone in the Czech delegation was required to self-isolate at home for two weeks, just like every new arrival on the island from overseas. “During these two weeks you are not allowed to leave your apartment or house. The minute you arrive on the island, you have to give your cell phone number, which is then monitored 24/7. If the battery runs out, a patrol turns up on your doorstep within minutes to check what’s going on”,” a Czech woman resident in Taiwan told us. This is partly why the island has remained Covid-free, recording a mere seven deaths among a population of over 23 million. The Taiwanese follow the rules without a word of protest because “they have full trust in their democratic government,” adds the Czech expat. “To an extent I’ve never seen in my home country.”

When Miloš Vystrčil’s delegation visited a museum of folk art in the countryside, a disinfection squad in full PPE suits with cleaning equipment followed them every step of the way, cleaning the areas the Czechs had passed through. A mask-wearing Miloš Vystrčil was allowed to address the Taiwanese parliament and deliver a message of support for the island democracy in words that echoed around the world: “I am a Taiwanese!” He even met Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and while the business representatives closed a number of deals, the Taiwanese stayed on coronavirus alert vis-à-vis the Czechs at all times, as if sensing that that they were dealing with the delegation from a country that was only weeks away from becoming Europe’s coronavirus hotspot and one of the most affected countries in the world in terms of infection rates and per capita death rate.

A Laid-back Summer for the Covid Champions of this Spring

Meanwhile, not just the Czech Republic but the entire Visegrad part of Central Europe was still relaxing in post-holiday serenity. Only a small number of Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles had heeded their governments’ and epidemiologists’ perfunctory recommendation to spend this year’s holiday at home. What didn’t help was that many politicians were not particularly good role models. The Czech Prime Minister, the billionaire oligarch Andrej Babiš, after lending his support to an expensive state-funded campaign encouraging people to spend their holidays at home, personally arranged with his counterparts in Croatia and Slovenia travel corridors for Czechs to the Adriatic, before jetting off with his family to a luxury resort in Greece.

The younger generation of Central Europeans in particular enjoyed themselves greatly on the Adriatic coast, just as in pre-corona times. And things weren’t too different in the Polish seaside resort of Sopot. Thousands of football fans watched live matches over the summer, and Prague, Kraków, Bratislava and Budapest were once again teeming with tourists. A few restrictions remained in place, but life largely went back to normal. And why not, given that the coronavirus had been defeated and citizens of the V4 countries felt like champions again. After all, that’s what their own governments were telling them.

As recently as July, as European Union’s prime ministers haggled about distributing 750 billion euros from the Recovery Fund that would provide EU countries with direct aid and favorable credits guaranteed by all 27 members, the V4 prime ministers opposed the idea that the level of aid should be determined primarily by the degree that a country had been affected by the coronavirus. “We should not be punished for our success,” opined the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, while the heads of the other V4 governments nodded enthusiastically.

A Harsh Lockdown in the Spring

This happened because back then it still seemed that post-communist Europe had grappled with the first wave of coronavirus better than Western Europe. Relatively soon after the first major coronavirus hotspot was detected in northern Italy, the V4 countries sealed their borders almost hermetically. The Czech Republic went as far as to impose a border regime more drastic than that under Communism. Czechs, with the exception of truck drivers and train drivers, were forbidden to leave the country altogether. “That was completely unconstitutional,” Pavel Rychetský, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, stated a few months later.

Poland, Hungary and Slovakia took a similar approach. On the pretext of quarantine, thousands of people in some of the largest Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia were surrounded by military units and kept sealed off from the rest of the world for several weeks. The cabinet of the populist Prime Minister Igor Matovič ordered Slovak citizens returning from abroad to spend two weeks in quarantine in dormitories and hotels, often at the other end of the country from where the returnees lived. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic became notorious for making the last vestiges of free movement across frontiers, i.e. highway freight traffic, more difficult, resulting in enormous lines of trucks building up outside their state borders.

All the Visegrad states immediately imposed strict restrictions on the free movement of their citizens, banned public assemblies, closed schools and universities, shut hotels, shops and restaurants, theaters, cinemas and museums, and halted production in car plants that provide the backbone of the economy of these Central European countries.

Civil rights, including the right to freedom of assembly, were severely curtailed, and fresh prohibitions were announced at a much faster rate than economic support for the affected groups. The education system was in complete disarray, so much so that for the first time in the country’s history Slovakia cancelled high school leaving examinations. Under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus, the regimes in Warsaw and Budapest further tightened their grip on their respective societies. Parliament in Hungary was de facto disbanded, and an enabling bill handed unlimited power to Viktor Orbán’s government.

Meanwhile, in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Order Party tried to push through an ill-prepared system of postal voting for the presidential election, devised in a way that lacked all credibility. Kaczyński was determined to go ahead with the election as planned in the spring, come what may.  Despite, or maybe precisely because of, the restrictions in place at the time prevented opposition candidates from carrying out any in-person election campaigning, while the government’s own candidate, the incumbent president Andrzej Duda dominated the government-controlled state media. A mutiny within the ruling right-wing faction thwarted, however, Kaczyński’s plan for this illegitimate election in the midst of what was, to all intents and purposes, a state of emergency, and forced him to postpone the vote until the early summer.

The brutal and robustly enforced measures had a tangible effect. While Central Europe experienced a considerable economic downturn, the numbers of dead and infected in the region remained low. The numbers were so low, in fact, that Slovakia’s top officials boasted that in terms of tackling the coronavirus they had done better than any other EU country. Similar triumphalist noises also emanated from the representatives of the other V4 countries. V4 reasserted its peculiar sense of self-importance and superiority towards the West, similarly to the attitude displayed by the region a few years ago during the refugee crisis which – at least as the leadership of the V4 countries would have it – they had apparently ‘won’ by refusing to accept asylum seekers.

The Lost Visegrad Fall

This was not true and remains untrue in the case of the migration crisis, and it is equally untrue today. Adapting the proverb: “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” to the coronavirus, we might say “Don’t count your ventilators before they are needed”. The situation in the Visegrad 4 countries can be summed up as follows: over the summer, while the local ruling populist politicians basked in the glory of a symbolic victory over the first wave of the pandemic, the state apparatus, government and epidemiologists did nothing or next to nothing. While most of Western Europe managed to learn some lessons from the first wave in the spring, and went on to set up track and trace systems, beefed up their health services, increased considerably their testing capacities as well as the speed and effectiveness of financial support for the most seriously affected parts of society, the Visegrad 4 did not learn any lessons and made no preparations. And in September the fall wave hit them with extraordinary force.

The Czech Republic was hit especially hard. At the end of August, the government in Prague initially tried to ignore the alarming figures, reopening schools and delaying restrictions on other activities. This was partly because regional elections were scheduled for October. Although the health system was generally in better shape than that of the other V4 countries, Czech hospitals found themselves on the brink of collapse, overwhelmed by the sheer number of severe Covid cases.

The government has completely mishandled the situation in care homes, allowing the most vulnerable group – senior citizens – to become infected due to the lack of PPE and testing. “We can’t afford to turn off the economy again,” Prime Minister Andrej Babiš insisted, before being forced to turn off much of the Czech economy again. A night-time curfew was imposed, parents turned into home-schooling teachers, pubs and shops were shuttered and the cities turned into ghost towns. But even that was not enough to stop the Czech Republic from becoming Europe’s coronavirus hotspot. Whereas in the spring around 400 Czechs died of Covid-19, the same number of people died in November every two or three days, and by early December the number of victims reached 8,000 and was still growing fast. Babiš’s springtime codswallop – “I have saved thousands of dead” – acquired a rather tragic overtone.

While the other V4 countries did not register such a steep rise in infections, the weakness of their health systems also became fully apparent. In Poland and Hungary, hospitals were soon unable to care for severely ill patients, and Slovakia rapidly reached the limits of its healthcare capacities. The spring measures, including the swift closure of all borders in Hungary, did not work. The decision by the country’s football-mad Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to allow a match in Budapest to go ahead in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, unheard of in the rest of Europe, seemed almost suicidal. By mid-November, even Orbán, who normally puts on a show of omnipotence, was forced to admit that “if infection rates continue to rise at the present rate, Hungarian hospitals won’t be able to cope with the pressure”.

Slovakia tried to achieve a European, or even global, first, by making the entire population take antigen tests. The testing was ‘voluntary’, but anyone who did not take the test had to self-isolate for 14 days, which for many meant losing their job. Although Prime Minister Igor Matovič promised that the restrictions would be eased after the testing program, this did not really happen, nor was a massive slowdown in the infection rate recorded. While infections were rising rapidly in Poland, the country’s Constitutional Court, packed with judges nominated by the government, announced an almost total ban on abortions, sending hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. At the end of November, Polish hospitals were on the brink of collapse.

The V4 countries turned from coronavirus champs in the spring into the coronavirus morgue of Europe in the fall. What is particularly alarming is that a large section of the V4 population has said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine developed in the West, partly because they do not trust their governments and state administration.

To cap it all, because the EU insists on tying access to EU funds to the rule of law, Poland and Hungary have blocked the passing of the EU budget for the next seven years, as well as the EU Recovery Plan. This is very same Recovery Plan, which Hungary and Poland, but also the other two Visegrad 4 countries, desperately need as a result of the fall coronavirus fiasco. The phrase “shooting oneself in the foot” comes to mind.

Luboš Palata

is the European editor of the Czech daily Deník. He was a reporter and commentator at the daily MF DNES and the deputy editor in chief of the Slovak daily Pravda. He studied International Relationships and Political Science at Charles University.

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