The Czech Medical Chamber and the health minister have called on Czech doctors living abroad to return home to help fight the virus. Medical students and people with medical training have also been encouraged to come forward. More than 1,000 qualified nurses who’ve left the profession have offered to come back to help.
For now, the Na Bulovce hospital has enough beds for everyone. But it’s preparing for the worst.
“We have other back-up beds prepared in other departments in case the capacity exceeds our current possibilities,” said Dr. Hana Rohacova, the head doctor at the hospital’s infection disease clinic. This weekend, the government began setting up a temporary field hospital in Prague. Czech Health Minister Dr. Roman Prymula told CNN he expects the extra beds will be needed as soon as the end of this month.
Czech data scientist Petr Ludwig was among those pushing for that mask mandate back in mid-March, months before western health authorities or even the World Health Organization was recommending them.
Days later, Babis announced the mask mandate.
“We didn’t convince the government, we convinced public by [social media] influencers and then government followed because our government is slightly populist. So they followed the opinion of the public,” Ludwig told CNN.
The Prime Minister was converted — he even tweeted some advice to US President Donald Trump on March 29, “Try tackling virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask, decreases the spread of the virus by 80% … God bless America!”
In almost every way, the country had regained the normalcy that people in across Europe were craving. It wouldn’t last long.
“We didn’t see dead people, we didn’t see people with coronavirus in hospitals — the Czech people thought that this is nonsense and we don’t need to wear masks,” said Dr. Sery.
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 health minister conceded his country’s victory lap was premature.
“That’s true, because we had many experts — and those were not the epidemiologists and virologists — but they were arguing that, okay, the disease is there, but it’s very mild,” said Dr. Prymula, who has been on the job now for less than a month. “So they tried to push politicians just to skip out of strict countermeasures.”
In August, with case-counts rising and schools set to reopen, Rastislav Madar, a top epidemiologist and the coordinator of the government’s coronavirus restrictions advisory group, called for the government to re-instate the strict mask mandate that was in force in the spring. But when the then-Health Minister Adam Vojtech announced masks would again become compulsory in most indoor spaces, Babis said no. A day later, Vojtech walked back many of the new rules. Madar resigned a few days later.
With an early October Czech Senate election approaching, Ludwig thinks Babis’ decision was a populist political calculation.
“During the first wave, [the government] was convinced that people wanted masks, so they pushed masks. Now, they are convinced that people don’t want to wear masks. So they are against [the mask mandate],” he said. “After the election, they started to push some harder rules again, but it was too late because we already had an exponential growth.”
Those measures have forced schools, restaurants and pubs to close down. Masks are required in indoor public spaces and on public transport including its outdoor stops and stations, but the same strict mask mandate that seemed so effective in the spring has not been re-instated.
“In Czech Republic, everybody hates wearing a mask, really. This is not Taiwan, this is not China where they are wearing a mask every day,” said Sery.
Prymula denies the decision was political. He says there are ongoing discussions about potentially expanding the mandate to require masks outdoors too. “But as it’s not only wearing mask, it’s an issue of other countermeasures, and particularly social contact, because some people still keep social contacts, 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.