The czech republic coped so well with the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic that in june around 2,000 people gathered at a 500m-long dinner table on prague's charles bridge for a party billed as a symbolic farewell to the crisis.
At the time, i dont think it was crazy, said filip, a 30-year-old who attended the celebration, adding that it was a chance to enjoy one of pragues most picturesque landmarks without the tourists. i actually invited my grandma. she didnt accept. but not because of coronavirus which tells you something about how low the numbers were.
Three months on, the picture looks far darker. on thursday, the 10.7m-strong central european nation recorded 3,493 new cases, its highest daily figure. two-thirds of the 74,255 czechs confirmed to have caught the virus have done so in the last month alone. last wednesday, the government reintroduced a state of emergency.
The pattern has been repeated across central europe. the region handled the first wave of the pandemic far better than the more developed economies of southern or western europe. but the second wave looks more threatening. like the czechs, poland, slovakia, hungary and romania have in the last four days all reported their highest caseloads since the start of the pandemic.
Higher rates of testing mean the number of cases reported now is not directly comparable with the first wave. deaths have also so far remained low. but unlike in april and may, there are signs that the regions health systems are beginning to struggle. czech health minister roman prymula warned last month that if no action were taken, czech hospitals could reach their limits by the end of october. in the romanian capital, bucharest, that point has already arrived.
We dont see the epidemic plateau, ferenc jakab, a virologist leading a hungarian government research group on the virus, told a virtual conference last week. if...no more serious action is taken, the number of infections will rise drastically in the next month.
As elsewhere, the second wave of the virus in central europe coincided with the holiday season and the reopening of schools. but the biggest difference between the first and second waves is how governments have reacted.
Central europes earlier success was largely due to its rapid and aggressive response. in march, as the uk let tens of thousands of people throng horse races in cheltenham, and a town in france tried to break the world record for the number of people dressed as smurfs, central europe closed borders and shops, banned large gatherings and ordered the wearing of masks.
When cases began surging again in august, however, the same countries with the exception of hungary, which closed its borders in september largely tried to contain the pandemic with less draconian and more localised measures.
Observers say that for the regions heath systems and bureaucracies less well funded than those in western europe, and, in some cases understaffed this approach presents greater challenges.
The type of capacity needed to follow the wuhan example and shut down everything is completely different from the capacity needed to set up a proper track-and-trace system, to set up a proper support system for people who are quarantined, said olga loblova, a public health researcher at cambridge university.
Testing, in particular, remains a weak spot. [to regain control of the pandemic], the first thing to do is test, test, test, said maria ganczak, a professor and specialist in epidemiology at polands zielona gora university. but we also need to implement at least some infection control procedures at schools, and also actually enforce the regulations that are already in place.
The situation has not been helped by muddled messaging from politicians. as cases began to climb in august, czech prime minister andrej babis overruled an attempt by his health minister to reintroduce an obligation to wear masks more widely. meanwhile, hungarys foreign minister peter szijjarto said he would fire staff who asked to work from home.
Part of the reason for the change of approach is that governments know more about the virus than six months ago. but it is also about the heavy economic toll. in the second quarter, economic output fell 14.5 per cent in hungary, 12.3 per cent in romania, 8.9 per cent in poland, 8.4 per cent in the czech republic and 8.3 per cent in slovakia.
We have a huge deficit, the biggest in our history, and it seems that the government deficit next year will be roughly the same, said danuse nerudova, who was part of an economic task force advising the czech government on coping with covid. we warned the government that a complete lockdown would really destabilise the public finances... and thats maybe the reason that they were reluctant to close the economy.
However, as cases continue to rise, observers say that more aggressive measures are needed again. some sort of lockdowns are probably inevitable at this point, probably targeting certain sections of social and economic life, and certain regions, said ms loblova.
Its unrealistic to think that the situation can be improved with sophisticated and less restrictive measures.