When the pandemic first hit, other countries turned to the Czech Republic for lessons in how to deal with Covid-19. But while the country coped relatively well back then, the second wave has been rather more brutal.
The Czech Republic now has the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in Europe and one of the highest in the world. A new daily record of 9,544 cases was set yesterday; just a few weeks ago, 500 new cases a day was cause for concern. The death toll has now risen above 1,000, over 2,500 people are in hospital with Covid-19, and almost a quarter of all tests performed come back positive. During the 'first wave' in the spring, the number of patients in a serious condition peaked at 100; now it is almost 500.
Adam Vojtěch, the country's health minister – who guided the Czech Republic successfully through the first wave of the virus – has resigned abruptly. In typically tactless style, Czech president Miloš Zeman labelled Vojtěch a 'fair-weather minister, not a Covid minister' before claiming the country needs a 'butcher' like his successor Roman Prymula to effectively handle the crisis.
Prymula, who is nicknamed the 'Colonel' because of his military past, is living up to his reputation for being something of an enforcer. One of his first announcements was to ban singing. This intervention has resulted in viral memes using this clip from a favourite 1950s Czech fairytale film – depicting the Midnight King banning singing.
Yet while the Czech Republic's figures are worrying compared to the first wave, many in Prague are keeping a sense of perspective. A new daily record of 54 deaths was recorded on Monday. Adjusted for population size, the equivalent number for the UK would be around 350. So while the situation here is by no means good, it is also not, yet, anywhere near as bad as that seen in other countries.
The Czech government is nonetheless scrambling to reverse the situation and counter impressions that its handling of the pandemic was too lax in the summer and early autumn (in contrast to its unflinchingly strict response to the first wave). For a time, life here was almost completely normal. Arts festivals were held in the baking heat of Prague’s parks and classical music concerts, the lifeblood of Czech culture, were attended by thousands of suited and booted (albeit masked) devotees.
Now, in the face of a huge rise in cases, such frivolities are unimaginable. In a televised address on Tuesday night, Prymula ('Butcher' or 'Colonel': take your pick) braced the country for more tough times ahead. With cases inexorably increasing, sweeping changes were announced at the end of last week. Pubs and restaurants are now shut, public consumption of alcohol is forbidden, schools have switched to distance learning, and leisure activities are cancelled. People may not gather in groups of more than six, and they may only enter shopping centres in pairs.
Significantly, though, Prymula noted that avoiding another full national lockdown is of paramount importance. The government is desperately trying to keep shops and services open and people at work, with senior figures like Zeman expressing concerns that the country simply cannot afford another total shutdown.
But never fear: the Colonel has proposed a grand plan to rescue the nation and solve the crisis once and for all. His idea? By testing every single Czech for antigens and ordering all positive cases to self-isolate, he hopes to eradicate the virus in one fell swoop.
Commentators have been quick to point out the obvious logistical problems, and much like Boris Johnson’s 'Operation Moonshot', Prymula’s plan is seen as fanciful by most. The Czech government seemed decisive in subduing the first wave, but now it is swimming against the tide. The second wave sees it torn between those urging a full national lockdown and those who fear this dystopian nightmare will never end. The Colonel claims that renewed restrictions on civil liberties will be temporary, lasting only a couple of weeks – but with the numbers heading in the wrong direction, that seems unlikely. And if his fantasy rescue plan doesn’t pay off, there is no knowing when we might sing again.