LITOMĚŘICE, Czech Republic—A blue light flashing across bedroom windows has become a feature of the nights. This is Litoměřice, a town in the north of the Czech Republic. The light is from yet another ambulance climbing the access road that leads from the dark, deserted town to a hospital perched on a hill. On board, there is likely to be another COVID-19 patient. This is the country with the highest COVID death rate on Earth, and it’s experiencing another surge of infections.
Kateřina Steinbachová, a doctor, lives next door to the Litoměřice hospital in a medical residence. A year ago, this hospital was selected to be one of the special COVID units for the northern part of the country.
Ironically, the ambulance traffic is the only sign of life during these desperate nights of the pandemic.
“My parents told me that the outside world looks like evenings during the communist dictatorship,” the 31-year-old doctor says.
Back in the communist era, businesses would close early, there were no neon signs blinking into the night and people would rather keep to themselves at home than wander around. Boredom, anxiety and feelings of abandonment suffocated towns back then. This past year, the string of restrictions, bans, curfews and lockdowns has brought back these unhappy memories for many Czechs.
“Many of my older patients have fallen into a depression, saying the surroundings now remind them of the times of the ‘Communist normalization.’ They feel like they’re being swallowed by grayness,” says psychotherapist Tomáš Rektor.
He’s referring to the 1970s following the so-called Prague Spring when the Soviet tanks sent from Moscow brutally crushed the Czechoslovakian rebellion against Communist rule. The bloodshed put the Communist hardliners back in charge. They subsequently governed the country with a mixture of bureaucratic overreach and violent repression.
Apart from the similarity in how things look, it is the Communist social legacy that has come into sharp relief these days. The mindset of many Czechs was formed during the dictatorship, which ended in 1989 after 42 years, when the current generation of Czech people over 50 were in the prime of their lives. This has significantly contributed to the current health crisis, analysts say.
The Czech Republic’s COVID-related death rate per 100,000 remains the highest in the European Union, and so is the daily number of infected people. Dozens of hospitals are on verge of collapse, many unable to receive gravely ill patients for the lack of ICU beds and medical personnel.
Dozens of hospitals in the Czech Republic have declared a “mass casualty event,” meaning that ICU beds might not be available for patients who need them. It’s gotten so critical that the Czech government has asked Germany, Switzerland and Poland to take in dozens of patients to help these overwhelmed hospitals.
The current crisis here is particularly mind-blowing because the Czech Republic successfully smashed the virus during the first wave in the spring of 2020. Czechs watched in horror as Italy, their favorite vacation destination, was ravaged by the coronavirus. While hundreds of Italians were dying each day, in the Czech Republic the daily death toll in the first three months of pandemic never surpassed 10. There were even days when no one died.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a big test for this young democracy and many believe that after the initial triumph against the virus, Czechs failed big-time. There is still a sense that people expect the government to solve their problems rather that taking personal responsibility.
“Since the fall of communism, we have yet to learn how to live in freedom. We have not developed a sense of self responsibility. We prefer to delegate it onto somebody else. In this case onto the government,” said sociologist Jiřina Šiklová, who was a close ally of late President Václav Havel. She came from the same dissident circle as Havel, and she was good friends with the first freely elected head of the state after the totalitarian regime had ended.
In times of crisis like the COVID pandemic, this buck-passing attitude is unlikely to serve you well if the government turns out to be incompetent. And the Czech government, under the leadership of the current, controversial prime minister, Andrej Babiš, has a long record of failed decisions and botched strategies in dealing with the COVID threat.
Babiš, a former member of the Communist secret service police, acknowledged some blunders in a recent speech. Specifically, he said it was a bad decision to allow businesses to reopen for the Christmas season and that the summer relaxation of the masks wearing mandate was wrong. He also admitted that his government underestimated the British variant of the virus.
The local hospital in Litoměřicre is on the receiving end of these missteps and errors. It has been overflowing with COVID patients who got infected with the dangerous British mutation.
“My colleagues at the COVID units are exhausted. They have been in it for a year and, in the last few months, have had to endure war-like situations,” says Dr. Steinbachová.
Many hospitals are so short of staff that they desperately keep asking for voluntary workers with little or no experience. Some even employ soldiers and firefighters. On top of these extreme circumstances, many doctors and nurses have been infected and, according to the government figures, are among the hardest hit professionals in terms of COVID contagion.
And it is far from over. At the end of February this year, Prime Minister Babiš said that the month of March would be hellish. The statistics proved him right. The rate of hospitalization, the number of gravely ill and currently infected are at record levels. And this country of 10.7 million is rapidly approaching 27,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Globally, the Czech Republic sits in first place when it comes to deaths per 100,000.
Pavel Žáček, a former director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, said the Czech population was being forced into a period of self-examination as the required pandemic response offered echoes of their autocratic past.
Developed democracies at the beginning of the pandemic could not blunt the spread of the virus because their people were not used to being told what to do and many defied restrictions, said Žáček. The autocratic regimes were more successful at enforcing rules but took advantage of the situation to go after dissenters.
“The Czech Republic falls somewhere in between those two systems,” he notes, saying that on one hand many deeply distrust Babiš’s government’s handling of the pandemic, while on the other there are still large swaths of the population who demand more intervention.
Žáček fears people are forgetting what they’ve learnt since the end of the Cold War.
“I am worried that in the post-COVID era, a good enough number of Czechs will want the government to keep helping them,” said Žáček, “and the country will shift towards socialism again.”