After Austria and Hungary, which at the time were the first countries in the area to impose border restrictions, the Czech Republic, together with its cousin Slovakia, was one of the very first countries in Europe to isolate itself by completely shutting down its borders to protect itself from this foreign threat. Before doing the same thing a little later, some Western European countries criticized the choice by Prague and Bratislava to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, wondering whether they were in conformity with European law. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, had warned against decisions that she considered too hasty and disproportionate, even stating "general travel bans are not considered very effective by the World Health Organization".
Masks: a symbol more than simple protection
Respiratory masks were also deemed ineffective or even unnecessary. However, the debate on the issue was short-lived in the Czech Republic. As early as March 19, the government made the wearing of a mask or of a scarf covering the mouth and nose mandatory. A few days later, weekly magazine Respekt published a cover with a drawing of an old sewing machine and a mask bearing the inscription "A strong Czech Republic". Faced with a serious shortage of respiratory protective equipment, the magazine highlighted that "citizens are managing and helping each other out". "These masks have become a symbol of the Czech approach to the coronavirus and our awareness of the danger we could be in. They are proof of the failure of the government to obtain PPE in time, but also of the civil society’s capacity to act, which it did, in its own way."
With national lockdown declared a week earlier, it became very rare to see people outdoors, whether in the streets, on public transport or in the shops that remained open, in both Prague and in the countryside, who weren’t wearing protection. Masks with a wide variety of designs flourished all over the country, while thousands of volunteers sewed emergency masks for everyone who needed them, from the elderly to social and sometimes even health workers. A nationwide campaign Andrej Babiš was very proud of: "The Czech Republic is a mask powerhouse". Since then, and like all other political leaders and personalities in the country, the Prime Minister has always worn a mask, even for his TV appearances.
Meanwhile on March 23, in neighboring Slovakia’s capital city Bratislava, when the new government formed by Igor Matovič was sworn in, all its members as well as the President of the Republic, Zuzana Čaputová (who sported a raspberry mask to match her dress, much to the international media’s pleasure), wore masks and gloves for the official ceremony and picture. While this gesture may seem insignificant, it perfectly summed up the desire to respect the new rules of living together, on both sides of the border.
Even the confusion around the seizing of thousands of masks from China and destined for Italy, which led to the Czech Republic being accused of theft, a false claim widely reported by many European media, in particular in France, never negated the country’s determination.