The Czech Republic was one of the faster countries to react to COVID-19. With a job offer in London for end of March, my plans to relocate abroad meant that I had to keep a close eye on the steps the government was taking before my departure.
Politically, my country is going through challenging times. The country’s prime minister Andrej Babis is facing charges – which he dismisses as politically motivated – of misuse of European Union subsidies. Also problematic in the eyes of the public and the political opposition is the fact that Babis’s minority government relies on Communist Party support.
For many, this is an unthinkable step in Czech post-communist politics. The prime minister’s polarising personality, alongside an emphasis on PR over policy, has been the defining feature of the Czech response to the virus.
With increasingly frequent TV appearances, the government began shutting down schools and cancelling cultural events. When these were found insufficient, the government declared a state of emergency and closed the country’s borders.
Although I had a job agreement and permit to stay in Britain, I needed to know whether I would be allowed to board a plane. But none of the ministries or embassies I asked could clarify how the new measures would work and whether I could leave the country.
The struggle to keep up with the situation was never ending, as the government constantly clarified or changed the rules. It was not just me who was confused – a hairdresser told me she had no idea whether she could open her shop or not. Paradoxically, the opposition observed, for a government known for prioritizing PR, it was at this time that official communication became minimal.
I took a risk and booked an early flight with no certainty whether I would be allowed to board the plane. Making my way towards the check-in desks, I had never seen Václav Havel airport hall so empty. Instead of a standard document check, border control consisted of three officers who examined my documents and inquired about my reasons for travelling. Eventually I was allowed to board the plane.
For those with no plans to leave, there were other pressing issues. Many criticized the government’s measures for intentionally limiting their freedom. The ban on large gatherings restricted the increasingly common protests taking place against the prime minister and the government.
While elsewhere similar measures might not have proved so problematic, Czech post-communist society did not take these so lightly, and some compared the government to the old communist regime. Asked to rule on the legality of some restrictions on movement and commercial activity, the Prague Municipal Court declared them illegal.
Arguably, government action protected the country against the virus, but in the process, it also highlighted some past issues which modern Czech society is still dealing with.
For more interesting perspectives, explore the Living with coronavirus full collection.