Czech Republic: What’s behind world’s worst COVID an infection fee? | Coronavirus pandemic Information
Prague, Czech Republic – With a population of 10.7 million and around 1.4 million COVID cases, the Czech Republic has the highest per capita infection rate in the world.
The death toll – a grim 22,000 people – is also worrying.
On March 1, Prime Minister Andrej Babis introduced the strictest lockdown to date. People are not allowed to travel between districts within the country and cannot visit one another. All retailers are closed with the exception of the main stores such as supermarkets.
The rise in cases is due to the fact that the so-called Kent variant, a highly infectious strain first discovered in the UK, is finding its way across the country, bringing Czech hospitals and the economy to the brink of collapse.
Jan Pačes, senior virus sequencing expert, from the Academy of Sciences, speaks to Al Jazeera about the severity of the pandemic and calls on the government to take stricter precautionary measures.
Al Jazeera: How did the country go from some of the lowest infection rates in Europe to the highest in the world?
Jan Pačes: The Czech Republic is currently in the fourth wave of the pandemic and the health system is reaching its limits.
The Czech government has consistently shown incompetent leadership skills that do not protect public health, rule through populism rather than seek advice from experts.
Many politicians have found it difficult to understand that infectious diseases are increasing exponentially.
The government imposed a lockdown in March last year when we only had ten infected people. In so few cases, the lockdown has been very effective and people have taken precautions.
In May, the government began easing restrictions as the country had next to no cases. There were no restrictions during the summer, and when the second wave came in September, politicians did not react quickly enough.
In addition, the Czech government has not been able to communicate with the public on all fronts.
Populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis showed inconsistent leadership by firing two health ministers just a few months apart, introducing restrictions and changing them the next day. All in all, the government failed to communicate with the public, to gain trust and to protect them.
Al Jazeera: In the last few days there have often been around 15,000 new infections. Do you expect this number to increase?
Patch: Yes, due to a number of unfavorable factors. Firstly, we started vaccination way too late and had one of the slowest vaccination rollouts in Europe. The country only started vaccinating on the weekends last week – this is unacceptable.
The entire vaccination program had been a disaster from the start when the online registration system crashed 24 hours after it was launched.
Pačes says the government should take stricter measures to curb personal contact [Denisa Dimitrovová]The Ministry of Health created chaos. Even when we had vaccination doses, we did not start vaccinating because syringes and needles were missing.
Second, we don’t sequence enough. Only now are we starting to map the different strains of the virus. So far we have only sequenced 737 samples. That is far too little compared to, for example, Great Britain, where the genetic fingerprint of every tenth sample is examined.
This is important to identify new strains and adjust the pandemic measures accordingly. It is likely that the more contagious variant known as the Kent variant appeared a few months before our discovery.
Al Jazeera: Can the health system cope with it?
Patch: Ironically, Czech hospitals today benefit from a large number of hospital beds introduced in the totalitarian era when institutionalization was common practice. We also have an excellent health system and can draw on the help of other EU Member States.
However, some of our hospitals have reached capacity and are no longer accepting patients. I don’t think we will see pictures of COVID patients dying on the street, but the pandemic will put a significant strain on the health system and people will likely die from lack of access to primary and preventive care.
Al Jazeera: What could have been done differently in terms of easing measures? And is the government taking the right steps now?
Patch: We shouldn’t have relaxed the restrictions before Christmas. The opening of shops and cafes collided with the spread of the more contagious mutation. This is just one example of our populist government failing to introduce effective time constraints and vote political favor over security.
There is now a ban on travel between districts, but we need to eliminate personal contact. Since all schools, pubs and shops are closed, I don’t see any difference whether regional borders are open or not.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the current restrictions will help contain the pandemic?
Patch: No, it is very unlikely. We are in a spiral that can only end if we introduce even stricter restrictions over longer periods of time. That would mean stopping all economic activity and convincing people to stay home.
Currently the economy is on the verge of collapse and most people no longer have the financial and moral capacity to follow the rules. Czech children have not gone to school for more than a year, the longest outside of Europe. The desperation is felt, but until we have fewer than 1,000 new cases per day, we cannot afford to lift the restrictions.