When Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis addressed the nation last night (Monday, 23 March), to call for courage during these “difficult times” as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads in Europe and to announce an extension of free-movement restrictions and business closures for yet another week, he did so sporting a fetching muted-blue face mask with red straps.
Such details are noticed by Czechs, who have dug out their sewing kits in recent days to take part in a DIY drive to create their own protective face garbs, after a regulation issued on 18 March made it compulsory to wear either a surgical face mask or other mouth and nose-covering apparel when in public, one of the few countries in the world to issue such a demand.
The Facebook page “Czechs sew face masks” now has 36,000 followers, and posts daily videos showing people how to sew their own masks from t-shirts and other household fabric, while the page also allows users to advertise their own handicraft for sale online.
Celebrities and well-known individuals, including Dagmar Havlova, the wife of late Czech president Vaclav Havel, have also taken to social media to show off their own creations, as a shortage of medical-grade masks and respirators means most people have to improvise their own defences, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.
Up until Sunday, when the Czech Republic recorded its first death from COVID-19, it was reportedly the country in the world with the most confirmed cases but fewest fatalities. As of 23 March, there are now 1,236 confirmed cases in the country, after 17,377 tests.
The Prison Service has distributed sewing machines and equipment to prisoners so they can make their own protective masks. It reckons that inmates can produce up to 50,000 masks per month, according to local media reports. In Belusice, a town in the northwest, inmates have been stitching masks for distribution at children wards in hospitals.
In Olomouc, a city in the east of the country, the regulation appears to be universally followed. In the city’s quiet streets and parks, strollers and dog-walkers maintain a healthy distance from one another and almost all sport facial veils.
Restrictions of movement are not as extreme in the Czech Republic as in France or Italy, and small huddles of people still congregate in an open square in the city’s main park to enjoy the spring-like weather. Here, masks are intermittently lowered to take sips of beer, served by an outdoors kiosk that remains open. In this country of country of dog-lovers, there are even rumours of people making masks for their pets.
According to the government’s regulations, police officers can impose an on-the-spot fine of CZK 10,000 (€360) to anyone found not wearing the correct equipment in public. In Prague, the capital, the police have so far sanctioned more than 4,000 people for failing to wear protective masks, though only 22 cases were referred to municipal prosecutors, according to a report by Dnes, a daily newspaper, on 23 March. In most cases, it seems, police are simply advising people to respect this regulation, rather than handing out financial penalties.
On Monday evening (23 March), the government announced that restrictions of free movement and business closures, which were supposed to end the following morning, will remain in place for another week, until 1 April. Education Minister Robert Plaga has said that schools are likely to remain closed until the middle of May.
Despite the Czech government’s insistence that people must still wear face masks at all times in public, the global medical community remains divided on how effective they are at preventing the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization, for instance, recommends the wearing of protective face masks, though many experts are sceptical, claiming that while they might slightly prevent spread of the virus for people in close contact to one another, they are much less effective in stopping transmission outdoors.
A featured story in this morning’s edition of Novinky.cz, an online news site, warns that “improperly treated masks may increase the risk of infection.” Quoting health officials from across the world, it noted that surgical masks must be changed regularly, whereas in the Czech Republic many people are wearing the same mask each day because of a shortage of stock, and they can become contaminated easily after being touched.
Indeed, concerns have been raised by Czech media in recent days that the demand for medical masks among the public because of the regulation is causing shortages in hospitals, where they are needed most greatly. Many pharmacies and hospitals have now run out of stock, and the authorities are sequestering the current stock for use for doctors and other front-line medical staff and patients.
The shortage will likely be eased after China last week promised to deliver regular shipments of surgical masks and ventilators, as well as other medical equipment. On 20 March, the first consignment of 1.1 million FFP-2 respirators arrived in Prague on board a military plane from China. It is not yet known how much the Czech government paid for these imports.
But the Czech Republic’s rush to stockpile surgical masks and respirators has come at a humanitarian cost, too. Last week, a shipment more than 100,000 medical masks on its way to Italy from China was confiscated by the Czech authorities, after they seized more than 680,000 masks and ventilators from a warehouse.
At first, Prague claimed that all of the masks were confiscated from criminals looking to sell the masks on the black market. Only later, however, did Interior Minister Jan Hamacek admit that many of these masks were actually part of the Chinese aid package to Italy, now the worst affected country in the world for COVID-19. Prague sent 110,000 masks to Rome this week.
“The Czech Republic certainly didn’t steal anything,” Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek told AFP after the incident, though it did little to dampen hostility in Italy and other states about the lack of European solidarity during this crisis.