Seeking a swift escape
The coronavirus situation is stabilising in Czechia after the government launched its “lockdown lite” and convinced the population to take the second wave of the pandemic at least a little seriously. With the health system at risk of buckling under the world’s worst rate of infection, the Czech government moved to impose wide-ranging restrictions in October. Now, with a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases being reported, officials have been quick to suggest that they’re keen to start lifting restrictions, which include shuttered schools, pubs and restaurants, limits on retail, and restrictions on personal movement.
On Wednesday, there were 8,925 new cases reported, well below the 15,727 peak recorded a week earlier. With several days of declining numbers and the reproduction rate at 0.8, government officials declared that no tightening of the restrictions would be needed. Health Minister Jan Blatny said he wants to start preparing “controlled measures” to loosen the restrictions; on November 18, first and second grade students will be able to return to school. At the same time, the government is preparing to ask parliament to extend the state of emergency, as its special powers are set to end late next week.
However, health officials predict that the number of patients requiring hospitalisation won’t peak until next week and have urged Blatny to keep the restrictions in place for at least the next two weeks. Indeed, Czechia still has the highest number of cases per 100,000 population in the EU over the past 14 days at 1,369.5, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Only Luxembourg comes close to challenging its European crown. Blatny has also said that Czechia is interested in buying 2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Hungary is also having a torrid time with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. After weeks of hesitation and unfounded optimism, the prime minister has now taken to announcing new restrictions practically on daily basis on his Facebook page. As most decisions are taken at the last minute – like closing the schools or announcing a curfew – the details are often fuzzy, leading to confusion and the impression that the government is losing control.
The government-critical media have been having a field day. News site 24.hu wrote in a sharply worded editorial, under the headline “The ultimate failure of the government”, that Prime Minister Orban is apparently only capable of managing crises that he himself fabricates, but has no idea how to tackle a real challenge.
In the meantime, the government-friendly media is finding that everything remains reassuring in Hungary. News site Origo claimed that in Belgium even unskilled nurses are now having to be recruited by the liberal government there to help out in the health care system. Evidently the West is crumbling under the pandemic, unlike Hungary.
In Slovakia, there was better news following its mass COVID-19 testing program over the previous few weekends. Healthcare workers, the army and volunteers tested over 2 million Slovaks last weekend, finding another roughly 13,500 cases.
Although Slovak experts, politicians and doctors remain divided over the nationwide testing program, the worst-hit northern region of Orava has started to show encouraging signs some three weeks after the pilot project which took place on the weekend of October 24. While in October the daily number of new cases was reaching into the hundreds, the rate of new infections has decreased rapidly in November. “The demand for PCR tests has decreased 10 times or more, and so has the share of positively tested people,” TV Markiza reported on Wednesday.
Although other epidemiological measures have helped improve the situation in the region, the rapid decrease in the number of new cases suggests that antigen testing probably played a significant role here, too. “The test itself doesn’t destroy the epidemic, but the fact that the positive cases were identified in a short space of time, and that those people were isolated and sent into a 10-day quarantine, has helped decrease the number of new infections,” Henrieta Hudeckova, an epidemiologist at the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin, told TV Markiza.
As Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic considers further nationwide testing before Christmas, experts are now arguing wide-scale testing makes most sense only in the worst-hit areas and riskiest environments, like hospitals or care homes. “We need to replace the nationwide mass testing with a so-called adaptive testing of the infection hotspots,” wrote a group of epidemiological experts in Dennik N this week. “The latest coronavirus research shows that robust, adaptive and repeat testing will bring a significantly safer, less expensive and more precise method of the COVID-19 spread monitoring in practice.”
The Slovak government announced mass testing would continue in chosen places on a regular basis – hospitals, care homes and border crossings. The practical implementation, however, comes with its own set of challenges; for now, Slovakia only offers antigen testing at the border with Ukraine. The government also floated the idea of antigen testing in schools to allow children to return to the classroom.