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The world's worst COVID death rate puts Czechs back in the misery of the Cold War
GettyLITOMĚŘICE, Czech Republic – A blue light flashing across the bedroom window has become a feature of the nights. This is Litoměřice, a city in the north of the Czech Republic. The light comes from another ambulance climbing the access road that leads from the dark, deserted city to a hospital perched on a hill. Another COVID-19 patient is likely on board. This is the country with the highest COVID death rate on earth and there is another surge in infections. Kateřina Steinbachová, a doctor, lives in a medical dormitory next to the Litoměřice Hospital. A year ago this hospital was selected as one of the special COVID units for the north of the country. Ironically, ambulance traffic is the only sign of life on these desperate nights of the pandemic: "My parents told me that the outside world looks like evenings during the communist dictatorship," says the 31-year-old doctor era, shops would close early, there were no neon signs, blinking into the night and people would rather stay home to themselves than wander around. Boredom, fear and feelings of abandonment suffocated the cities back then. Over the past year, the numerous restrictions, bans, curfews and bans brought back these unfortunate memories for many Czechs. "Many of my older patients have fallen into depression and say that the environment now reminds them of the days of communist normalization." They feel swallowed up by gray, "says the psychotherapist Tomáš Rector. He is referring to the 1970s after the so-called Prague Spring, when the Soviet tanks sent from Moscow brutally put down the Czechoslovak uprising against communist rule. The bloodshed brought the hardliners back under control. They then ruled the country with a mixture of bureaucratic overreach and violent repression. Aside from the resemblance in fashion, it is communist social heritage that has come in sharp relief these days. The mindset of many Czechs was shaped during the dictatorship, which ended after 42 years in 1989, when the current generation of Czechs over 50 were in the prime of their lives. According to analysts, this has contributed significantly to the current health crisis. The COVID-related death rate per 100,000 in the Czech Republic remains the highest in the European Union, as is the daily number of people infected. Dozens of hospitals are on the verge of collapse, many unable to admit seriously ill patients due to the lack of intensive care beds and medical staff. Dozens of hospitals in the Czech Republic have declared a "mass casualty event," which means that intensive care beds may not be available for patients who need them. It has become so critical that the Czech government has asked Germany, Switzerland and Poland to admit dozens of patients to help these overwhelmed hospitals. The current crisis here is particularly overwhelming as the Czech Republic successfully crushed the virus during the world's first wave in Spring 2020. Czechs watched in horror as Italy, their favorite travel destination, was devastated by the coronavirus. While hundreds of Italians died every day, in the Czech Republic the daily death toll never exceeded 10 in the first three months of the pandemic. There were even days when nobody died. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a great test for the young democracy and many believe that the Czechs failed big after the first triumph against the virus. There is still a feeling that people expect the government to solve their problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Since the fall of communism, we still have to learn how to live in freedom. We have not developed a sense of self-responsibility. We'd rather delegate it to someone else. In this case, the government, ”said sociologist Jiřina Šiklová, who was a close ally of the late President Václav Havel. She came from the same dissident group as Havel and was good friends with the first freely elected head of state after the end of the totalitarian regime. In a time of crisis like the COVID pandemic, this stance of money is unlikely to serve you well if the government turns out to be incompetent. And the Czech government, led by current, controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, has a long list of failed decisions and failed strategies in dealing with the COVID threat. Babiš, a former member of the communist intelligence police, admitted some mistakes in a recent speech. In particular, he said allowing companies to reopen for the Christmas season was a bad decision and that the summer relaxation of the masks that carry the mandate was wrong. He also admitted that his government underestimated the UK variant of the virus. The local hospital in Litoměřicre is on the receiving end of these missteps and mistakes. It was overflowing with COVID patients infected with the dangerous British mutation. “My colleagues in the COVID units are exhausted. You have been with us for a year and have had to endure war-like situations over the past few months, ”says Dr. Steinbachová. Many hospitals are so lacking in staff that they desperately ask for volunteers with little or no experience. Some even employ soldiers and firefighters. In addition to these extreme circumstances, many doctors and nurses have been infected and are among the most severely affected professionals regarding COVID contagion, according to government figures. And it's far from over. At the end of February this year, Prime Minister Babiš said the month of March would be hellish. The statistics have proven him right. The rate of hospital stays, the number of seriously ill and currently infected people is at record levels. And this country of 10.7 million people is rapidly approaching 27,000 deaths related to COVID-19. Globally, the Czech Republic ranks first when it comes to deaths per 100,000. Pavel Žáček, former director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, said the Czech people would be forced into a period of self-examination as needed. The response to a pandemic reflected their autocratic past. Developed democracies at the start of the pandemic failed to mitigate the spread of the virus because their populations were not used to telling what to do and many resisted the restrictions, Žáček said. The autocratic regimes were more successful in enforcing rules, but used the situation to persecute dissidents: "The Czech Republic is somewhere between these two systems," he notes that, on the one hand, many are deeply suspicious of Babiš's government's handling of the pandemic on the other hand, there are still large parts of the population who are calling for more intervention. Žáček fears that people will forget what they have learned since the end of the Cold War. A sufficient number of Czechs will want the government to continue helping them, "said Žáček," and the country will turn to socialism again. “Read more at The Daily Beast. Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.