Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic: Should the Czech Republic pursue autonomy from the V4 and collaborate closer with the EU?
As of the end of 2020, the Czech Republic has been ranked as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the second wave, ranking as #50 out of the 53 accounted countries by a Bloomberg study, and with a record-high of 52.5% positive testing rate around the holiday season. In total, the Czech Republic has had more than 1 million cases and over 16,000 deaths, which is staggeringly high compared to, for instance, Austria, a country of similar population size, which had just 403,000 cases and about 7,000 deaths. While a widely distributed vaccine is on the horizon, countries will still need to maintain vigilance in order to reduce the increase of new cases and a death rate. In order to prevent the onslaught of a third wave, particularly given the spread of more contagious mutations, the Czech Republic will need to look at alternative policies in order to prevent further damage. At the moment, the Czech Republic finds itself at crossroads – on one path, it can continue to align policies with that of their V4 neighbors, or on the other path, work towards a closer collaboration with the EU.
The Visegrad 4 nations all together rank very poorly for their COVID-19 responses in comparison to western EU nations. Thus, this blog aims to analyze the differences in the V4 response compared to Western European countries and assess what an alignment with EU methods of case prevention and governmental restrictions could contribute to public health.
The other members of the V4, including Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, have abused democratic methods of lockdowns and states of emergencies and have remarked inaccurate conspiracies regarding the safety of future vaccine use, increasing public vaccine skepticism. In Poland’s ultra-right parties and Marian Kotleba’s “People´s Party of Our Slovakia”, they allege that the pandemic was created for global control through implanting microchips during vaccination. In March of 2020, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, used the COVID-19 pandemic to abuse power to adopt an indefinite state of emergency that allowed the government to suspend elections and impose undemocratic punishments for breaking quarantine, such as an eight-year-long prison sentence. Similarly, Poland instituted a 180-day state of emergency to weaken checks and balances and oversight by the parliament, despite the law only allowing a 90-day state of emergencies.
In addition, the 2 trillion-dollar coronavirus recovery package for the European Union that was funded by EU countries, including the Czech Republic, was delayed by Hungary and Poland in November, due to conflict with upholding EU democratic values. Hungary and Poland were questioned regarding whether they upheld the EU’s rule-of-law, which guarantees the values of freedom, democracy, equality, and respect for human rights. With Hungary and Poland breaching the EU’s rule-of-law, they challenge the democratic process of EU collaboration and unity. Beyond the political differences, these are areas that the Czech Republic should not be aligning with, especially in dire times of COVID recovery.
Beginning with opposing democratic and populist approaches to the pandemic, it would be more beneficial for the Czech Republic to align with the democratic states of Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Germany, for example. These countries, while they may have different approaches towards COVID, have enacted alternative policies in combatting the pandemic. Scandinavian societies enjoy high levels of trust, which is inherently related to high levels of collaborative responses and accountability by their citizens, their leaders, and governing elites. The contrast between the welfare systems of Western and Nordic EU countries and the Czech Republic is that Nordic countries have a higher taxation system and societal engagement and contribution, therefore can be prepared with more resources during a crisis, such as face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Czech Republic, contrastingly, has been facing a serious shortage in face mask supplies.
Democratic practices and collaborative welfare are among the reasons why Norway, Finland, and Denmark have been ranked as being top #6, 7, and 17, respectively, in curbing COVID-19 growth in virus cases, mortality rates, testing access, government implementation of lockdown and citizen freedom. Hungary and Poland, on the other hand, have not aligned with these Northern European countries and their approaches, and the ramifications can be seen in the same COVID-19 response ranking statistics, with Poland ranking at a high #37 and the Czech Republic ranking even worse, at #50 (Hungary lacks ranking data here). Rather than resorting to populism and protests against governmental democratic policies, COVID-19 pandemic recovery progression in Poland and Hungary, and subsequently in the Czech Republic, has been held back. For instance, in Poland, a national state of emergency has been delayed to not postpone elections, and the ruling party has denied cooperation with other parties in terms of pandemic legislature, putting public health and the economy at risk in order to govern uninhibited and without parliamentary accountability.
Disinformation attempts around the pandemic have been used as a tool by some V4 parties to undermine the legitimacy and authority of government approaches to COVID recovery. However, when governments use this tactic, it can cause negative ramifications, for example, by providing false reporting of COVID recovery results for better media coverage and public optimism. Disinformation regarding vaccination, as stated earlier being spread by ring-wing parties, has caused distrust in the government of V4 countries, further limiting COVID-19 recovery progression by instilling public skepticism to be vaccinated. This can be seen in the case of only 56% of surveyed people in Poland supporting getting a vaccine if proven effective. Leaders also refuse to listen to health experts and become more unpredictable in their decisions- Hungary’s Viktor Orban undermined the EU vaccination plan to ‘score points’ with Russian President Putin, putting public health at risk with the purchase of the Sputnik vaccine, which has not been accepted by scientists due to insufficient trial testing, rather than the EU-approved Pfizer vaccine. In the end, countries with populist parties will take longer to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is an area the Czech Republic needs to stay far away from, especially with the high public vaccine skepticism already present in the Czech Republic.
Populism, however, is no stranger to the Czech Republic, with a public perception of government corruption at 84%, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš having pro-Russian views, and with populists controlling the top three jobs in the country, including the parliament. The Czech Republic faces public distrust in the government, as seen in Poland and Hungary regarding vaccine skepticism, with nearly half of the population not wanting to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Public distrust is also seen in opposition against governmental decisions regarding curfew and closing restrictions: Just on the 10th of January, 3000 people protested in Prague against the various COVID government restrictions, calling it “Otevřeme Česko”, or “Let´s Open Czechia”. While public perception and trust are low, populism in the Czech Republic is not Poland and Hungary, therefore now is the right time for the Czech Republic to distance itself from the populist views of the V4 in order for a speedier economic and health recovery in 2021.
COVID-19 vaccination and economic recovery will be on the top of the agenda for the Czech Republic’s next steps for 2021. The Czech Republic must coordinate with Western and Nordic EU countries for vaccine distribution. Germany has already begun vaccinating Pfizer, planning to vaccinate 6 million people by March, whereas Hungary is on a different path and has only received 6000 doses of the controversial Russian COVID vaccine. It is important for the Czech Republic to align with the EU rather than the V4 during the vaccination process of 2021 to improve their high death rate. The Czech Republic has planned to distribute the Pfizer vaccine to one million people in the first quarter of 2021, however, to reach herd immunity of 70-80% of the population vaccinated, this will take until mid-2021 in the Czech Republic. This may take even longer, with the high proportion of the population uninterested in being vaccinated. Comparing with Denmark’s much more efficient path, they plan to have every adult vaccinated by July of 2021. Misalignment with Western and Nordic EU nations’ plans of vaccination and factual media regarding vaccination has limited the Czech Republic’s rate of recovery.
With the increase of illness and employee quarantining, the closure of stores, restaurants, facilities, and stagnant tourism, the Czech Republic and its people face unemployment at 4% and a contraction of the economy by a record -10.9% in June 2020 and –5% in December 2020. The Czech Republic is on the right path towards economic recovery, supporting the EU’s next-generation plan for COVID recovery and setting the long-term EU budget. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš looks towards this plan that would benefit and revitalize the struggling Czech economy, with 360 billion euros in loans to be available to the Czech Republic and 35.7 billion euros from the EU budget over the next seven years. With this alliance with the EU and its recovery plan, Babiš will be able to present to the European Commission its plan for economic reform. This recovery plan is vital for the Czech Republic to get out of its economic slump, and it cannot risk a halting of funding due to aligning with the populist and anti-democratic values of the V4.
One thing that is setting the Czech Republic back from being able to operate similarly to Western and Nordic countries is the high rates of Euroscepticism. Previous Czech President, Václav Klaus, promoted Euroscepticism in his party, the Civic Democrats, and still today, the Czech Republic is one of the most Eurosceptic EU nations today. Even though at the time of succession in 2004, 77% of Czechs favored entering the EU, now only 35% support the EU and 60% believe the EU positively impacts the Czech Republic. Rebuilding faith in the EU will help COVID-19 recovery through alignment with the EU vaccination and economic recovery plans. The EU should be regarded in the Czech Republic as shared sovereignty between member states, while still preserving the national identity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the whole world, especially the worst-ranking COVID resilience nations of the Czech Republic and its V4 neighbors, leaving the Czech Republic with the options of aligning with populist-based V4 countries or Western EU countries, which have implemented COVID policies differently and more successfully. The answer is clear, and in order for the Czech Republic to keep on its path of vaccinating millions and securing an economic recovery package for 2021, it must align with Western EU nations for a better future for its citizens and relationship with proactive nations.
Liliana Elizabeth Kotval
Author : EUROPEUM