Democracy Digest: COVID Ravages Undervaccinated Region – Balkan Insight
Cruel and unusual punishment it may be for Czechs, but from Monday they’ll be banned from the pub unless they’ve had a shot. Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s government finally moved to tighten measures to fight the pandemic on Wednesday, a day after the country recorded 22,479 new COVID-19 cases – the highest incidence since March 2020.
The new restrictions will be hugely unpopular with the country’s significant minority of coronavirus doubters, libertarians and radical-right conspiracy theorists. That they were announced on Freedom & Democracy Day – the November 17 state holiday commemorating the Velvet Revolution that saw numerous mass public events held across the country – only added insult to injury. The anger was on full display at an event in central Prague as a section of the crowd aggressively heckled a TV reporter, branding him a “Traitor!”.
However, Babis’s administration is on its way out of power, so his reluctance to act as the fourth wave of the pandemic approached has caused some head-scratching. Some quarters suspect the outgoing premier might have been waiting just to complicate things for the incoming government.
And things are getting tough as the health system begins to creak once more. Hospitals are now hosting over 4,000 COVID-19 patients, 661 in intensive care. Non-urgent care has been limited in up to 30 per cent of the country’s hospitals. Health Minister Adam Vojtech warned that the health system is at severe risk of being overwhelmed.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the government’s pleas for people to sign up for a jab, the Czech vaccination rate remains disappointingly low. With just 58 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the country is significantly below the EU average of 65 per cent, albeit it leads in the V4 alongside Hungary. Vojtech told the media that the new hardline measures to raise the vaccination rate are the only route to a “relatively calm Christmas”.
Under the new regime, negative tests will no longer be recognised as valid for entrance to events and service establishments, Babis announced on television. Those with a vaccination certificate or who have recovered from COVID-19 will be admitted.
The Slovak prime minister on Thursday announced similar new measures as COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the country over the past week, filling up hospitals to the point of collapse and forcing doctors to make life-and-death decisions as the number of patients surpassed the available ventilator capacity.
With doctors having to handpick the patients who got the beds with the life-saving equipment – leaving others to struggle without it – the country is nosediving toward a public health catastrophe, experts warn. “We are falling headlong into a humanitarian crisis,” a doctor from Bratislava’s University hospital told the SME daily.
Several hospitals have run out of beds attached to ventilators, and only 20 such beds remained unoccupied across the country as of Tuesday. Around 600 beds were available to patients who do not require oxygen therapy, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said, but with the daily number of hospitalisations increasing by the dozens, medical professionals are sounding the alarm bells. Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky has already issued an order to restrict planned surgeries. “We’re at our breaking point,” the minister said, as quoted by the Dennik N daily.
Unsurprisingly, the worst hit regions are those with the lowest vaccination rates, the minister explained, and urged Slovaks to get the jab. The country’s vaccination rate hovers just above 45 per cent, far too low to avoid a public health emergency.
After some initial hesitation, the government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced on Thursday tighter rules for the unvaccinated and amended the pandemic legislation, which now grants greater powers to hygienists to shut down establishments that do not check for mandatory vaccination certificates, the Slovak Spectator informed.
Under the new rules, only those vaccinated or have had COVID-19 in the past six months can enter restaurants, shopping malls, shops with non-essential goods, sports activities and public events. In the most-affected regions, some services will face further restrictions. “It is a lockdown for the unvaccinated,” Heger told a news conference, news wires reported.
As a result of the new measures coming in, the pace of vaccination has picked up, with vaccination centres administering more than 25,000 first shots last week, compared with October’s weekly average of 11,000.
But not everyone found motivation in the stricter state-imposed rules. Hundreds of people protested the new legislation amid clashes with the police that erupted on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Two policemen were reportedly injured in skirmishes spurred on by anti-vaxxer leaflets distributed by the far-right LSNS party, which is led by extremist Marian Kotleba, a notorious opponent of the vaccine.
In Poland and Hungary, however, life continues pretty much as normal despite rising infections.
COVID-19 fatalities totalled 463 in Poland on Wednesday, with the number of new daily cases reaching 24,000 on some days during the past week.
Experts predict the country will reach the peak of the fourth wave of the pandemic at the end of November-early December. The government has so far imposed no further restrictions, with only masks required in enclosed places – though even that measure is hardly enforced and implemented only half-heartedly by Poles.
“In our country, certain coercive measures are not only received badly but can be counter-productive,” Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said, explaining the lack of restrictions. “They can trigger an even more negative and even aggressive attitude.”
In Hungary, if present trends prevail, the country is looking at another tragic Christmas. The daily death toll has climbed well above a hundred (reaching a record 178 on Tuesday), which is reminiscent of the worst days of the deadly third wave of the coronavirus that started around the same time of last year and by early summer had claimed some 30,000 victims.
Many had hoped that the vaccination program would hinder the new surge of the pandemic, but it seems it wasn’t high enough to achieve that. The vaccination rate of Hungarians is around 60 per cent, making it the regional leader but lagging the EU average.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been urging people on Facebook to get vaccinated, but it seems that Hungarians’ willingness to get the jab has reached its limits, while conspiracy theories about the negative effects or efficacy of the vaccines remain widespread on social media.
The Hungarian government built its pandemic strategy on securing COVID-19 vaccines first and encouraging enough people to get vaccinated, but refrained from introducing restrictions, let alone lockdowns. Previously, government politicians had often argued that Austria is Hungary’s laboratory for handling the coronavirus crisis. Yet the Hungarian government sees no major restrictions for those unvaccinated on the horizon, unlike in its northern neighbour, where from this week unvaccinated people are barred from restaurants, theatres or hairdressers. Basically, Austria has put some 2 million unvaccinated people on partial lockdown.
The Hungarian Medical Chamber sounded the alarm this week, warning people that hospitals are filling up and, in some cases, could even reach wartime conditions. The chamber made a dramatic appeal that if society does not want to have lots of dead people over Christmas, it is time to introduce masks in all enclosed spaces, including shopping centres, refrain from mass events, make a vaccination certificate or fresh PCR test a condition for entering restaurants or cultural institutions, and favour home office wherever and whenever a physical presence is not necessary.
“Vaccination is the best solution, but other measures are also needed to slow the pandemic,” the Hungarian Medical Chamber wrote.
The swift rise of the fourth pandemic wave makes it vital that the new Czech government takes control as soon as possible. However, concern is rising that President Milos Zeman, whose duty it is to appoint the new cabinet, could delay things further.
The process has already been drawn out by Zeman’s poor health, but it seems the frail septuagenarian may already be feeling up to a little scheming following the defeat of his ally Babis in the October 8-9 election. The president finally met with Petr Fiala, leader of the conservative ODS and premier-in-waiting, on Wednesday. Fiala reported after the session that Zeman had promised to appoint him to the top job on November 26, after which the president will spend 10 days meeting the ministerial nominees of the planned five-party coalition.
Zeman told Fiala that he plans to veto at least one of the 18 appointments. While no names were mentioned, it’s widely assumed that the president will try to block the appointment of Jan Lipavsky from the Pirate Party as foreign minister. Not only is Lipavsky a fierce critic of Zeman’s efforts to forge closer links with Russia and China, but the head of state has made very clear his distaste for the liberal Pirates. With the party struggling to accept its junior role in the incoming government after flopping in the election, the president is probably hoping to help push it over the edge.
Fiala has suggested that the list of nominees will remain unchanged. “I am not willing to speculate about replacements. All the names are correct, the list is good,” he said.
The incoming government is also keen to get to grips with the energy price spike and the record-high budget deficit. However, Zeman is now well practiced in using his power to veto ministerial appointments to cause chaos, having provoked at least two major crises during the time of the outgoing two-party government.
Still, the Pirates and their “Democratic Bloc” partners continue to push back on Zeman’s efforts to pull Czechia to the east. Their success will take on symbolic animal form early next year when Run Hou Tang and Gun Bao – critically endangered Chinese pangolins – arrive from Taipei Zoo.
Recent links between Democratic Bloc officials and Taiwanese counterparts have enraged China, which considers the island state part of its territory. While Zeman’s courtship of the Chinese Communist Party was in vogue, the Czech capital’s zoo spent years awaiting delivery of a pair of pandas promised by Beijing. But, for the meantime at least, Pangolin diplomacy appears to have the upper hand.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro this week announced fresh reforms of the judiciary that will seek to reorganise the judicial hierarchy, which he said would bolster the system’s independence and bring courts “closer to the people”.
The plan is to redistribute administrative functions among a total of about 1,100 judges, far fewer than today, and equalise the salaries of most judges apart from those heading the top courts. The organisation of the courts will be changed too, with the reform aiming to create 79 district courts and 20 regional courts, instead of the current 318 regional, 40 district and 11 appeal courts.
The opposition argues that this new reform is just another way for Law and Justice (PiS) to “purge” critical judges, not least by taking administrative functions away and putting them in the hands of political allies.
Poland is currently running up fines worth 1 million euros per day as it continues to ignore a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to disband a disciplinary chamber for judges that PiS set up. The chamber was widely seen as a way to put political pressure on judges to side with the government.
Meanwhile, three organisers of the Polish Independence Day march in Kalisz, a town in central Poland, were arrested for inciting hatred, making insults on the basis of ethnicity and public incitement to commit crimes against others. During the march, which took place on November 11, participants chanted “Death to Jews”, among others. Polish President Andrzej Duda, some ministers and the Polish Catholic Church all condemned the hate speech.
Battling high energy prices and soaring inflation, the Hungarian government decided to take an unorthodox step and put price caps on petrol and diesel. From Monday, November 15, petrol stations in Hungary can charge up to 480 forints (1.32 euros) for a litre of petrol or diesel. This is 30-40 forints lower than the level prices hit last week; on average, fuel prices are 50 per cent higher than a year ago.
The price cap means that companies or individuals operating petrol stations need to absorb the losses, which could drive some smaller, family-owned companies bankrupt. However, the minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, claimed the measure “would support the economy and contribute to a reduction in inflation.”
The price caps are intended to last for three months but could be extended. The government-loyal public television claimed that 85 per cent of Hungarians agree with the move, but experts warn that this is further evidence the Hungarian government does not respect free markets and intervenes in areas where it should not tread. Analysts suspect the price caps will last longer than three months and could even provide an opportunity for the national oil and gas company MOL to take over ailing filling stations and enlarge its already giant network.
Elsewhere, it came as little surprise that the CJEU this week slammed Hungary’s “Stop Soros Law”, which effectively criminalises NGOs that help migrants and refugees, and limits the right to asylum in Hungary.
The 2018 law threatens with up to a year in prison all those who support asylum-seekers. It also hinders people from applying for asylum if they have come to Hungary from a third country where their life was not at risk.
“Criminalising such activities impinges on the exercise of the rights safeguarded by the EU legislature in respect of the assistance of applicants for international protection,” the CJEU argued.
The human rights watchdog Hungarian Helsinki Committee welcomed the CJEU ruling and wrote in a statement that: “The ‘Stop Soros Law’ only served political aims and was intended to intimidate civil society with criminal sanctions, amid an already vile propaganda campaign targeting migrants and civil society organisations. Volunteers, well-intentioned citizens, lawyers and civil society organisations felt that their morally right actions were being persecuted in Hungary.”
The Hungarian government reacted in a typical manner, underlining that Hungary would continue to defend its borders. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote on his blog that while Hungary respected the CJEU ruling regarding the “Stop Soros” package of laws, “it reserved the right to take action against foreign-funded NGOs, including any activities by organisations funded by George Soros seeking political influence or promoting migration. Hungary’s position on migration has not changed — namely, that help should be given at the location of the problem”.
Justice Minister Judit Varga went a step further, accusing the EU of supporting human trafficking. She wrote in a Facebook post that she regretted that the EU court did not take Hungary’s arguments into account.
“We all know that to the Brussels bureaucracy, the thorn in the flesh was the fact that we criminalised the promotion and facilitation of illegal immigration, as we do not want foreign NGOs to organise illegal migration to Europe,” she wrote. “In today’s judgment, the Court stated what we would never have thought: Hungary must practically support human trafficking.”
Slovakia’s parliament in the end voted down a law “on the assistance to pregnant women” that in reality aimed to restrict access to safe abortions. The amendment, introduced by conservative MP Anna Zaborska, a long-time foe of abortion, was one vote short of passing its second reading. Crucially, seven MPs changed their vote in the final 30 seconds before the very last vote.
For Zaborska, though, the result was still a cause for celebration. “More MPs participated in the vote than last time, and that counts,” she claimed.
A number of human rights NGOs, as well as leading Slovak gynaecologists, opposed the amendment that would have introduced major curbs in accessing abortion. One point of contention was the proposal’s aim to extend the time period between a woman’s decision to undergo abortion and the actual surgery from the current 48 hours to 96 hours. Zaborska’s camp viewed the law as a social measure to motivate women against having an abortion. It is not the first time that Slovakia’s conservative MPs have proposed similar amendments to the abortion law. The topic regularly finds itself on parliament’s agenda, every six months or so, and is expected to reappear again in half a year’s time.
Elsewhere, Finance Minister Igor Matovic introduced his long-awaited tax and levy reforms in a trilogy of presentation-filled press conferences over three days, which allowed the former prime minister to bask in the limelight. Standing in front of a screen blaring the words, “A tax revolution that fulfils dreams”, Matovic first unveiled changes related to families – the highlight being a monthly child allowance of 200 euros per child and what the minister referred to as “fair taxes”. Next up were upgrades related to labour taxation and the last batch of reforms concerned businesses.
However, staying true to his fabled showmanship, Matovic promised an extra press conference dedicated to a surprise change package for the self-employed and restauranteurs. “Some of them will be happy, but others will be saddened,” the finance minister said ahead of the final presser scheduled for Friday. Matovic’s dream-come-true tax reform is estimated to cost at least 2.2 billion euros.