The countries of central Europe, having come out of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in much better shape than most of their western European counterparts, are now facing higher numbers than during the spring peak of Covid-19, as restrictions return to the region.
On Tuesday, the Czech Republic passed the milestone of more than 1,000 Covid-19 cases in a day for the first time, while Hungary has closed its borders for September to counter rapidly rising daily infection rates. Cases rose in Poland in August too, though numbers have since dropped.
The rise in the Czech Republic is a sharp setback for a country previously hailed as among Europe’s most successful in tackling the pandemic, prompting the authorities to intensify face-mask requirements.
A record 1,164 new infections were documented in the nation of 10.7 million on Tuesday, and over the past 14 days, the country has seen one of the highest infection rates in Europe when adjusted for population, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Czech officials have attributed the rise to a sharp increase in testing. They also insist most of the new cases are mild and among otherwise healthy young people. Some 168 cases were traced to a party at a Prague nightclub in July.
The prime minister, Andrej Babiš, told the World Health Organization to “keep quiet” after it voiced concern over reports that Czech officials planned to reduce contact tracing and testing because many of the new cases were asymptomatic.
In an angry tweet, Babiš accused it on Tuesday of initially failing to recognise the pandemic and of not recommending masks to combat it. The Czech Republic’s mask rule – introduced in March as part of its coronavirus lockdown and initially requiring face coverings even outdoors – was hailed as a major factor in its early success in controlling the virus.
Covid-19 cases in central Europe
The regulations were gradually eased as case numbers declined, before being lifted almost entirely in late June. Their passing was marked with an outdoor dinner party symbolically billed as a “farewell to Covid” attended by 2,000 people on Prague’s Charles Bridge.
The nation’s death toll is comparatively modest, at 444 out of a total of 29,877 cases since the pandemic began, but the latest statistics appear to confirm rising suspicions that the celebrations were premature. Wednesday saw three deaths from coronavirus. The most deaths in a single day were recorded on 8 April, when 14 people died.
Over the past week, mandatory mask-wearing has been reintroduced for shops and malls and on all public transport, including taxis. The Czech health minister, Adam Vojtěch, announced that masks would once again be mandatory inside all public buildings and indoor facilities from Thursday. Pubs and restaurants will be forced to shut between midnight and 6am.
Belgium has responded by putting Prague – one of the worst hit areas – on its quarantine list. Czech Radio reported that Germany was expected to follow suit, a move likely to hit the Czech capital’s already decimated tourist trade. The Czech economy, one of the first in Europe to go into lockdown after the country shut its borders in March, contracted by 11% in the second quarter of this year.
A second shutdown was not under consideration, Babiš said on Wednesday, but in Hungary, the authorities have responded to rising numbers by closing the borders. Over the summer, new cases in Hungary mostly stayed lower than 50 a day, but records have been set regularly since the end of August, with a peak of 576 cases on Monday. The death toll on Wednesday was two, and the country’s highest daily toll was 17 on 19 April.
Viktor Orbán, the country’s nationalist prime minister, said a second wave was “knocking at the door” and has identified the most important task as preventing new cases being imported. The country has closed its borders to everyone but citizens and permanent residents for the month of September. Hungarians returning from foreign holidays, even from countries with low coronavirus figures, must quarantine for two weeks.
The measures have been criticised by some European leaders as too broad to be effective and at odds with Hungary’s Schengen zone commitments. They have also dismayed many Hungarian businesses in the tourism sector.
The Višegrad Four group – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – were proud of their low numbers earlier in the year but all four are now struggling to contain a second wave that looks set to be worse than the first. Poland recorded a daily high of 903 positive tests on 21 August, though has subsequently seen a reduction.
In Slovakia – which was the first country along with the Czech Republic to introduce statutory mask wearing – 161 new cases were recorded on Tuesday, in contrast with the early part of the summer when new daily cases often did not break double figures.