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Europe Versus Coronavirus – the Czech Republic: Masks, But For How Long?

Europe Versus Coronavirus – the Czech Republic: Masks, But For How Long?
 Guillaume Narguet
Journalist at Radio Prague International


  • March 1: The first three people in the Czech Republic are diagnosed with the virus. All of them had just returned from a stay in Italy. In the following days, the number of positive cases increased.
  • March 10: The State Security Council decides to close all schools, except for preschools, for an indefinite period of time, even though there are only but a few dozen infected people throughout the country.
  • March 12: A national state of health emergency is declared. Gatherings of more than 30 people are banned, gyms and sports grounds are closed. Bars, restaurants and other such venues are closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • March 13: The government decides to close the borders as of March 15. A list of 15 "at risk" countries (including France) is shared. Czechs returning from these countries are required to respect a 14-day quarantine.
  • March 14: All shops are required to close, with the exception of food shops, pharmacies, petrol stations and a few other places considered essential. All restaurants are also closed. Takeaway sales, as well as the distribution of meals are still allowed.
  • March 15: The government creates a Central Crisis Management Team. The Deputy Minister of Health, who is also an epidemiologist, is placed at its head. In the evening, the government bans any free movement of people throughout the country, except for work-related reasons, serious family matters, food shopping and essential health care.
  • March 16: First three patients recover from Covid-19.
  • March 18: Citizens obliged to wear "any form of" respiratory protection in public places, including in the open air, starting at midnight. In food stores, a daily two-hour period is reserved for people over 65 years of age.
  • March 21: More than 1,000 reported Covid-19 cases in the country.
  • March 22: First Covid-19-related death is announced. The patient was a 95-year-old man who was already seriously ill.
  • March 24: The Chamber of Deputies approves the state budget deficit increase for 2020, from CZK 40 billion (€1.5 billion) to CZK 200 billion (€7.4 billion euros).
  • March 30: The government extends the measures restricting freedom of movement and trade until April 11.
  • April 6: Over 100 patients have recovered from Covid-19.
  • April 7: The Chamber of Deputies approves the extension of the state of emergency until April 30.
  • April 9: More than 100 Covid-19-related deaths reported in the country, while the number of tests carried out now stands at over 100,000.
  • April 14: The government presents a five-step crisis exit plan spanning from April 20 to June 8. This plan is quickly revised in order to adapt the speed of the end of lockdown process to the favorable evolution of the health situation.
  • April 21: More than 200 Covid-19-related deaths reported in the country.
  • April 22: The Chamber of Deputies approves the increase of the state budget deficit to CZK 300 billion (€11.1 billion).
  • April 23: In Prague, following a complaint by a health law expert, a court overturns four restrictive measures adopted by the Ministry of Health that impeded freedom of movement and retail trade. They are considered "illegal" according to the verdict. In the wake of this decision, the government first brought forward the timetable for reopening shops and other services. The ban on free movement of individuals was lifted, and the borders were reopened, although certain conditions for entry into the Czech Republic were maintained.
  • April 28: MPs agree to extend the state of emergency until May 17.
  • May 1: After local tests, a so-called "intelligent quarantine" system is launched nationwide. It is based on digital tracing and aims to enable the identification of people likely to have been contaminated by a Covid-19-infected patient.
  • May 3: End of the airlift between the Czech Republic and China, which began on March 20 to supply medical equipment.
  • May 4: The Ministry of Health announces three national institutes have begun research to develop a vaccine against Covid-19.
  • May 6: Results of the study of the level of herd immunity in the Czech population are presented. The main conclusion points to a low level of contamination. Out of nearly 27,000 tests carried out in five regions over a 12-day period, only 107 were positive.
  • May 11: Classes are reopened for students preparing to take the "maturita" (high school graduation) exams, with the number of students per class limited to 15. Restaurant and bar outdoor eating and drinking areas, as well as shopping centers, museums, galleries, and hairdressing salons are authorized to reopen.
  • May 13: According to data from the Ministry of Health, there were 8,223 people contaminated with Covid-19 in the Czech Republic, with 284 deaths and 4,900 patients reported cured. Nearly 315,000 screening tests have been carried out since the beginning of the epidemic.
  • May 25: primary schools are expected to reopen. Wearing a mask in the open air will no longer be compulsory. Launch of the fifth and final stage of the end of lockdown and economic recovery plan.


As often – and quite expectedly – stated by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš during the press conferences following his government’s countless meetings, in recent weeks the Czech Republic has often been held up as an example of how it has managed a health situation which, in this case, barely qualified as a crisis. A statement backed up by figures: with fewer than 300 deaths and just over 8,000 people infected in the two and a half months since the first positive case was reported, the Czech Republic, which has a population of 10.5 million, has indeed been little affected by the coronavirus. For some time now, the Czechs have even been jokingly asking each other whether they know "someone who has had this coronavirus". By way of comparison, Belgium, only a few hundred kilometers away and with a similar population, has a much bleaker record with more than 8,650 deaths and some 53,000 cases diagnosed (as of May 11).

The Czech Republic has been praised for how it has managed a health situation which barely qualified as a crisis

The coronavirus, although ubiquitous in Czech media like everywhere else in the world, has so far felt more like Chernobyl’s famous radioactive fallout cloud, which only harmlessly flew over our heads and in some cases even stopped at the borders, as alleged by the authorities.

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. 

In the coming weeks, Czechs and Slovaks, who formed a common state until 1993 and between whom cultural and political ties remain very strong, could become the first countries in central Europe to lift all border restrictions and allow their nationals to move freely again. As is the case for Austria and Croatia, two of Czech holidaymakers’ favorite summer destinations, with whose governments negotiations are already well under way, the idea is also to salvage as much of the tourist season as possible.

In neighboring Slovakia, when the new government was sworn in, all its members wore masks and gloves for the official ceremony and picture.

However, protective masks also have some opposers. Recently, a senator and oncologist described them as "a symbol of Czech fear and docility". In an article entitled "Why Eastern Europe is handling the coronavirus better than Western Europe," published on April 15 in Hospodářské noviny business newspaper, a journalist put forward seven possible reasons, which in his eyes, helped prevent a deteriorated health situation similar to that experienced in Western Europe. Among these reasons he listed compulsory tuberculosis vaccination, the discipline and respect for rules inherited from years of communist regimes, but also the fear of the almighty state embedded in people's mentality along with the fear of denunciation (failure to wear a mask is punished by a hefty fine).

An economy that can cope with the crisis

In a country with very enviable economic indicators – the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union (3% in March, with a slight rise to 3.4% in April in spite of the crisis), a growth rate of 2.5% in 2019 (the Ministry of Finance has forecast a 7.8% decrease for 2020, but a return to 5.8% is already announced for 2021), regularly increasing salaries (the average salary reached €1,365 in 2019), and little debt (32.7% of its GDP at the beginning of the year) – the shutdown of the economy via radical measures was well accepted by a large majority of Czechs, who were aware that the foremost priority was the protection of their health. On May 4, Jana Maláčová, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs reacted to the latest unemployment figures by warning the population: "The figures are still very acceptable, but there is no cause for celebration yet. The coming weeks will be a better indicator of reality and will show us to what extent unemployment numbers can rise. We expect a turning point at the end of May, beginning of June."

Car manufacturing plants drive the Czech economy. The plants owned by Škoda Auto, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen group, in Mladá Boleslav (80 km north of Prague), employ almost 34,000 people and stopped production for several weeks, while the streets of Prague were emptied of their millions of tourists.

The authorities’ relative confidence in the economy’s recovery, while not shared by the business community, is also explained by the Czech Republic’s mostly painless management of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Even if the crisis was of a completely different nature than the current one, it confirmed the Czech financial sector’s good health and that of the economy as a whole, in spite of its reliance on the outside world and the state of the European market, and more particularly that of Germany, its main trading partner. Indeed, each year, the Czech Republic exports more than 80% of its goods within the EU's borders (more than a third of which go to Germany).

However, as early as March 19, only a few days after the first lockdown measures were decided, in an op-ed published in Hospodářské noviny, two former leaders of the Czech Central Bank spoke of an unjustified "economic suicide". 

Each year, the Czech Republic exports more than 80% of its goods within the EU's borders (more than a third of which go to Germany).

Both men went so far as asking "will we let the entire Czech economy die in the interest of protecting life?", further lamenting the decision by numerous governments to focus exclusively on health aspects thereby neglecting the socio-economic consequences of the adopted measures. Needless to say, this op-ed immediately triggered a large wave of very diverse reactions. The financiers put forward several figures to support their cold reasoning.

"Every society can only spend part of what it produces on health care. In the case of the Czech Republic, this represents about 7.5% of its gross domestic product. In the current situation, if we consider the estimates of economic losses and the number of deaths that could occur with less drastic measures, we arrive at a sum of several tens or even hundreds of millions of crowns for each life saved. This is an obvious disproportion, not to mention the fact that this money will then be lacking for the treatment of other patients. If we are at war, a political term that is necessarily exaggerated, then we must clearly define when we consider that we have won it. Does this really make sense?" While it remains a very controversial question, it is nevertheless worth asking.

Regardless, the government has endeavored to take into account the impact of the restriction measures on economic activity in order to limit any potential damage. As part of this effort, it has implemented several measures, such as a daily allowance (initially 60% and then raised to 80% of gross salary) for parents who are forced to stay at home to look after their children following the closing of schools on March 11 and can no longer work, an €18.5/day "compensatory bonus" for self-employed workers (a widespread status in the Czech Republic), the introduction of a "kurzarbeit" system in which the state pays for part of the salaries of furloughed employees, the deferment of the payment of certain contributions,and payment of part of commercial rents or the freezing of rent increases for private individuals until the end of the anti-coronavirus measures.

However, this does not prevent the coalition composed of the populist ANO movement and the Social Democratic Party from being increasingly criticized by its opponents, of which it has many as demonstrated by the large protests against Andrej Babiš in 2019. But after all, this is also a sign of a return to a certain normality in a country whose democracy is not threatened, contrary to Hungary and Poland, its partners in the Visegrád Four (which also includes Slovakia).

Digital tracing to better target outbreak centers

In the end, Czech hospitals and their intensive care units were never overwhelmed. On Tuesday, May 12, only 16% of the registered infected citizens were hospitalized. Seeing the dramatic turn of events in Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom also helped the Czechs realize that their health system, despite a serious shortage of doctors and nurses as well as very inadequate financial resources, may not be in such a deplorable state as it is sometimes portrayed.

In early April, six French Covid-19 patients in a serious condition were even due to be admitted to a hospital in Brno, in the south of the country. While, they did not end up coming, contrary to what had been announced the previous day by the governments of both countries, the fact alone that the country could provide such support to a European leader was a success in itself.

In the end, Czech hospitals and their intensive care units were never overwhelmed.

"France asked us for help. As we have sufficient capacity, we responded positively" stated Andrej Babiš.

However, with the return of good weather and the prospect of holidays, more and more Czechs are now debating whether certain measures should be maintained. In particular, the mandatory wearing of masks, the closing of most high schools until September, and the closing of breweries and restaurants in a country that is the world's biggest consumer of beer per capita are now being questioned. On Monday, May 11, Respekt’s headline asked "Masks: how much longer?", above a drawing showing the Minister of Health still wearing a mask. Over the weeks, the mask has become as essential to Czechs as a pair of shoes when it comes to leaving the house, although the obligation to wear one will end as of May 25.

On May 6, the Ministry of Health presented the results of the "herd immunity" study conducted in five of the country’s regions. They showed a very low level of contamination. The 26,549 serological tests carried out over a dozen days on volunteers of all ages revealed just over 100 positive cases. This is both good and bad news, as it means that the level of immunization of the Czech population is particularly low.

Faced with an epidemic the evolution of which is difficult to anticipate, the government is bound to remain cautious. These results have nevertheless pushed it to step up a gear in its plan to end the lockdown and restart the economy. The authorities now intend to rely on the so-called "intelligent lockdown" system, a nationwide digital tracking-based scheme that is still flawed. Its success, which still depends on the ability to carry out up to 30,000 tests per day (which is far from being the case for the moment), would then enable the government to concentrate available resources on possible outbreaks centers. And maybe the Czechs will finally be able to leave their masks at home...


Copyright : Michal Cizek / AFP

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