17. Jun 2020 - Rudolf Kučera

War: this was the main metaphor that framed the Czech Republic’s early response to the Coronavirus crisis. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš seized every opportunity to stress that the nation was fighting a war against an invisible enemy. Very early on, President Miloš Zeman proposed giving the epidemiologist Roman Prymula an award for “success in the war against the Coronavirus”. Prymula, like Christian Drosten in Germany, quickly became the face of the Czech response to the epidemic. For the first time since the fall of communism, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. Compared to many European countries, the Czech Republic closed its borders very early, protecting them in part with military guards. Some basic civil rights were curtailed, and the normal operation of the health care system was redirected towards preparing for the coming pandemic. Television broadcasts were filled with interviews with doctors and health care workers (those fighting ‘on the frontlines’) and the government’s everyday press conferences announcing newer and newer restrictive measures called to mind a forceful response to an imminent danger.

Czech society thus indeed experienced a level of mobilization that can probably only be compared to the early stages of a war. However, the first cracks in the façade of preparedness began to appear very soon. In January, when asked by the opposition, the minister of health assured parliament that the Czech Republic had enough masks and other personal protective equipment. A few days after the spread of the virus, hospitals began to report that this was certainly not the case. This critical lack of masks, in particular, quickly damaged the image of a rapid and effective response. 

The face mask became the main symbol of the Czech war against the pandemic. While the government was negotiating with Chinese manufacturers about speeding up the supply of masks, thousands of Czech citizens and enterprises began to sew their own and distribute them to hospitals and retirement homes, basically substituting the failing state. This homemade replacement for hospital-grade PPE was seized upon by the government; the state’s list of essential infrastructures somewhat absurdly included haberdasheries along with grocery stores, drug stores and pharmacies. While the supply of food and drug store items continued as usual, the lines that formed in front of fabric stores were used as an example by those who were critical of the government’s failure as well as by those who stressed the effectiveness of the popular mobilization. 

While the protective ability of masks was still unproven at the time, their production and use have been central in mobilizing the public to supplement the state in the critical moments of the first phase of the pandemic. Wearing masks in public created a community of people who cared about the pandemic and contributed to the collective effort to contain it. Much like the national symbols worn publicly during the revolutions of 1918 or 1989, individuals used masks as a visible sign that they were taking part in a collective effort. Paradoxically, the government quickly embraced this mobilization from below, and the Czech Republic was one of the first European states to make the mandatory wearing of masks official policy, effectively trying to unite society and the government at a time when severe trenches were beginning to emerge. That this attempt proved a success became clear with the public disgrace and denunciation experienced by those who chose not to wear masks.

As a symbol of the Czech fight against the Coronavirus, the face mask thus helped strengthen the community inwardly, but, like other similar symbols, it also defined it outwardly. The Czech Republic witnessed a sometimes absurd ‘mask nationalism’, which measured other nations according to their ability to make mask wearing an official policy. Television footage of (especially German) cities full of individuals with uncovered faces, as well as the harsh criticism voiced by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš towards Italy, which was allegedly failing to fight the virus in part because it ignored masks as a general protective measure, stood for the broader criticism of Western Europe for its lax approach to the virus. Showing the alleged inability of others to enact comprehensive lockdown measures served as an argument for perhaps the strictest border closure in Europe, whereby the Czech government not only restricted entry into the country, but also actively prevented citizens from leaving it. Criticism of neighbouring states that refused to accept the time-honoured Czech approach at times spilled over into an updated form of Czech Euroscepticism, which was further supported by lamentations over the European Commission’s seeming inability to fight the spread of the disease. The low infection and death rate, along with access to the experimental American drug Remdesivir, which was delivered to Czech hospitals, lent further support to the government’s narrative, according to which the Czech Republic successfully managed the pandemic without any help from its European partners.

The first phase of the Coronavirus pandemic thus fed into the current Czech discourse of isolationism. The restricted movement in and out of the Czech Republic failed to cause increased resentment. It was sometimes even praised as a measure that should remain in effect in the future. In part, the prevailing narrative of the extremely successful Czech response to the virus continued in the tradition of Czech exceptionalism, leftover from the country’s post-communist transformation during the 1990s. However, it is to a far greater extent the organic continuation of a portion of Czech society’s break from European cooperation, which gained strength during the refugee crises of 2015–2016. For now, this break has not been accompanied by a rejection of basic European values like in Poland or Hungary. Nevertheless, the current Coronavirus crisis once again revealed the trenches that have been dug in recent years between Western and Central Europe.  

About the author

Rudolf Kučera is Deputy Director for Research at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences

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