COVID-Prague 2.0

In another post @nadia mentioned that a frind of hers got stuck in Prague and asked the cardinal question of “what is happening” in the city. That is actually a really good one which can be answered from various angles.

After the much-needed summer break relaxed in terms of anti-COVID measures which everyone anticipated with great enthusiasm (maybe too much, some might say), we seem to be witnessing the advent of a darker season. The warning voices came back and the city itself is gradually returning into the quarantine. But the general mindset from both the administration and the public seems to have changed quite markedly. How and why?

As for the first part of this question, a simple observation might be quite helpful. In March 2020, after recording a steep rise in the number of COVID cases, the government led by the prime minister Andrej Babiš opted for what could be described as a complete lockdown of the whole country, and the measures implemented garnered praise from around the world. That is something Andrej Babiš is definiely not used to. On the domestic scene, the modus in which those measures were implemented reaped criticism: the information distribution was erratic, changing on the daily basis (hence memes about the time periods reserved for 65+ citizens in the supermarkets), and when the government issued the appraised obligation of wearing masks and respirators everywhere, they outright lied about their disponibility in the country. Also, as it turned out later, all of these limitations were decreed unconstitutionally under a state of emergency, which was declared without the approval of the parliament. Despite all that, basically the whole country abided by the rules, regardless of their opinion of the government. As my non-Czech wife wondered: “This is incredible, a government that no one in this city likes declares something and everyone in Prague follows these orders like trained soldiers.”

Fast forward to our present, the end of September. The COVID spread statistics have been generally growing worse over the last two months, currently, they are actually six times worse than in March. But the daily life in the city goes mostly on as it did during summer. You would not really notice that Prague is a “red” zone on various European COVID maps (and Czech ministry of health, as documented by the title picture). The public administration has generally not reacted to this situation, until recently.

So why has it changed?

Public perception - definitely transformed. In spring, the general attitude seemed such as the population of the city was genuinely scared of the disease. Right now, the relatively low mortality rate in combination with various other statistical data tends to be used as a proof of the “spring overreaction.” For some, these serve as arguments supporting their position, which simply stem from the fact that they grew tired of COVID, of the way in which the qurantine-normality has shifted their lives, “unnecessarily”, as they do not perceive themselves to be in a risk group. Still, the Prague public seems to be more on the careful side, as the city with its high population concentration is one of the country’s COVID foci.

Is it a conspiracy? Well, kind of… Unlike in other places, wild theories of the reptilian-world-mind-control-scheme sort have not gained prominence in the public discussions or politics yet, though you might definitely find them flourishing in the corners of the internet Instead, there is a pervasive feeling among those who do not like him, that the prime minister Andrej Babiš is using the COVID situation to bring back totalitarian practices and control of the population by force and to enrich himself and his allies. As a former communist state security agent, a ruthless businessman and politician, his image invites such perception. This is the crossroad at which the clash of personal liberty and collective safety discourses is mostly taking place right now in the Czech Republic. And Babiš is well aware of that…

Which brings me to my last point - what attitude is politically more beneficial? While criticized by the political opposition for, as he would say, technicalities, amidst all the confusion, the two steps forward one step back approach of the spring COVID crisis management has mostly gained points for the Babiš government. With the general discipline loosening, the ruling political forces noticed that the tides have turned. Despite the growing numbers of sick people, the government is carefully weighing each step its takes. When the minister of health, who became somewhat of a scapegoat for all the COVID mismanagement (though he was definitely following orders from above) showed some personal initiative in tightening the measures again (in regard of the mask-wearing obligation, a cornerstone of the governmental PR in spring), he was mercilessly deposed from his function by the prime minister while simultaneously receiving praise for his managerial abilities. And then you realize that the parliamentary upper chamber elections are coming next weekend, so yeah, go figure… Babiš is a politician, a populist, he has to represent what he claims that it is the people want. But now it seems that even he himself hesitates which camp to join.

The effect seems to be twofold. Firstly, the narrative of spring overreaction and downplaying of COVID danger is inadvertently supported by the government. All of the administrative bodies of the country, be it the city of Prague, other regional governments, municipalities, Universities etc. are waiting for the regulations from above, which come in an extremely slow tempo. This provokes internal tensions and emergence of pro/anti-COVID-measures tribalism on all levels. Secondly, the numbers of COVID proliferation are still high (despite a small decline) and this time no one is even improvising a general plan as of now. Some marginal selective (and questionable) measures cannot be counted as such (pubs close at 10, the audience has to be sitting in cultural events etc.).

So, we will see “how is Prague” in a month.


Jirka, what a compelling description of the situation, you write like a political analyst!

I think we have seen several cases where ahead of the elections populist decisions are made - Serbia being example nr. 1 in my mind. But at the same time, if you compare how covid was handled across the world, you also have blatant lack of measures that hopefully will cost incumbents their positions (looking at the US here). Is it possible that in Czechia, because of the overall not bad covid management in spring compared to other countries, plus the confinement fatigue as you write, now new political choices can be made without a political cost?

Some of us disagree on the way governments should be handling this: for example @alberto values individual freedom and demands more tailored (and may I add) sophisticated measures, while me, for example, would rather everyone follows strict rules in absence of individual responsibility, or belief in it. For example- that if people are asked to have a social bubble of 8, they will respect that.

Where do you personally stand? and how is your position influenced by the cost that the covid crisis had on your own family?
@kuba_svehla how about you? @Wolha, how safe are you feeling with the measures in Poland?

I’m very much aware that those of us who may not have lost much in health or economically, could be more inclined to see the need for stricter measures until this pandemic sees an end of the line…

1 Like