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Masks made Czech Republic the envy of Europe. Now they’ve blown it

There are currently more new Covid-19 cases per million people recorded in the Czech Republic than i..

There are currently more new Covid-19 cases per million people recorded in the Czech Republic than in any other major country in the world. On Friday, more than 11,100 new cases were reported in a single day, a new record. In the first 17 days of October, more people have died of the virus in the Czech Republic than during the previous eight months of the epidemic combined. The Czech Medical Chamber and the health minister have called on Czech doctors living abroad to return home to help fight the virus. Medical students and people with medical training have also been encouraged to come forward. More than 1,000 qualified nurses who've left the profession have offered to come back to help.For now, the Na Bulovce hospital has enough beds for everyone. But it's preparing for the worst. "We have other back-up beds prepared in other departments in case the capacity exceeds our current possibilities," said Dr. Hana Rohacova, the head doctor at the hospital's infection disease clinic. This weekend, the government began setting up a temporary field hospital in Prague. Czech Health Minister Dr. Roman Prymula told CNN he expects the extra beds will be needed as soon as the end of this month. It's a stunning development. Less than two months ago, the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis boasted his country was among the "best in Covid."Healthcare workers tend to Covid-19 patients at the intensive care unit at Thomayer Hospital in Prague on October 14, 2020. While the Czech Republic is technically experiencing the second wave of the epidemic, the first one this spring looks like an insignificant blip on the radar in comparison to the current state. The Czech Republic was once one of the most successful countries in Europe at controlling the spread of the virus. Babis' populist centrist government moved quickly to close the borders and implement a nationwide lockdown. Many other countries did the same, but what set the Czechs apart was the requirement to wear face masks by everyone, everywhere outside of the home.Czech data scientist Petr Ludwig was among those pushing for that mask mandate back in mid-March, months before western health authorities or even the World Health Organization was recommending them.Ludwig had just flown from New York to Prague, and says he was the only person on his flight with a face covering. When he arrived home, he dug through the scientific evidence supporting face coverings and made a YouTube video explaining why he was convinced masks were the answer. The Czech-language video attracted more than 600,000 views, in a country of only 10 million.An English version of the video has been viewed more than 5.7 million times.Days later, Babis announced the mask mandate. "We didn't convince the government, we convinced public by [social media] influencers and then government followed because our government is slightly populist. So they followed the opinion of the public," Ludwig told CNN. Tomas Volny and his partner Barbora Duskova sew face masks in their apartment in Prague on March 17, 2020.Medical masks were in short supply at the time, which was one of the reasons why the WHO didn't recommend their use. Faced with the shortage, thousands of Czechs dusted off their sewing machines and became part of a wartime-like effort to make and distribute masks where they were needed. One group of volunteers created an interactive map of need which resulted in more than 600,000 masks, made mostly by individual volunteers, to be handed out around the country. The Prime Minister was converted — he even tweeted some advice to US President Donald Trump on March 29, "Try tackling virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask, decreases the spread of the virus by 80% … God bless America!"Most Czechs obeyed the mask rule. The measure wasn't particularly popular with the masses, but it was wildly effective in controlling the spread of the virus. And it made the country an outlier. "Some people from the WHO, for example, told us that this is nonsense. Many other countries around Czech Republic told us that wearing masks is nonsense. But the Czech people were doing well," said microbiologist Dr. Omar Sery, who was also one of the early advocates for face masks.The Czech Republic's first wave of infection peaked in late March at 408 cases in one day. The highest single-day death toll was just 18, in April. On June 30, the Czech Republic recorded no new Covid-19 deaths. That same day, an outdoor street party in Prague celebrated the end of the pandemic. Masks were not part of the dress code. Theaters reopened, indoor dining returned, people were allowed to travel abroad. Even Babis, the Prime Minister, went to Greece for a vacation.In almost every way, the country had regained the normalcy that people in across Europe were craving. It wouldn't last long."We didn't see dead people, we didn't see people with coronavirus in hospitals — the Czech people thought that this is nonsense and we don't need to wear masks," said Dr. Sery.

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Covid: Thousands protest in France against proposed new vaccine pass

A new draft law would in effect ban unvaccinated people from public life.

Demonstrators in the capital, Paris, held placards emblazoned with phrases like “no to vaccine passes”.

Interior Ministry officials said 34 people were arrested and some 10 police officers were injured after the protests turned violent in some places.

The bill, which passed its first reading in the lower house of France’s parliament on Thursday, would remove the option of showing a negative Covid-19 test to gain access to a host of public venues.

Instead, people would have to be fully vaccinated to visit a range of spaces, including bars and restaurants.

The government says it expects the new rules to come into force on 15 January, although the opposition-dominated Senate could delay the process.

But demonstrators on Saturday accused the government of trampling on their freedoms and treating citizens unequally.

Others targeted their anger at the president, Emmanuel Macron, over comments he made earlier this week in relation to unvaccinated citizens, telling Le Parisian newspaper that he wanted to “piss them off”.

One protester, hospital administrator Virginie Houget, told the Reuters news agency that Mr Macron’s remarks were “the last straw”.

And in Paris, where some 18,000 people marched against the new law, demonstrators responded to his coarse language by chanting: “We’ll piss you off”.

TV images showed altercations between protesters and police turning violent in some places. In Montpellier officers used teargas during clashes with the demonstrators.

Turnout for the protests was estimated to be about four times higher than the last major demonstrations on 18 December, when some 25,500 people marched across the country.

But despite the vocal protests, opposition to the new measures is not widespread and recent polling suggests the vast majority of people back the vaccine pass.

France is one of the most highly vaccinated countries in Europe, with more than 90% of over-12s eligible for the shot fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, new coronavirus infections are rising rapidly across France as the new Omicron variant takes hold.

The country recorded more than 300,000 new cases for the second time in a week on Friday and admissions to intensive care wards are rising steadily, putting healthcare systems under strain.

Some hospitals have reported that some 85% of ICU patients are not vaccinated against Covid-19.

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Covid-19: ‘There is no choice between lives and livelihoods,’ OECD chief Gurría says

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:26

As European countries move into their second Covid-19 lockdowns of t..

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:26

As European countries move into their second Covid-19 lockdowns of the year, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development backs measures seen by many as tough. Ángel Gurría tells FRANCE 24: "If you win the battle against the virus first, you will have less economic consequences." He adds that "there is no choice between lives and livelihoods; it's a false dilemma".

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Mexican economist Ángel Gurría has been Secretary-General of the OECD since 2006 – throughout the global financial crash and subsequent recovery.

With hopes now high for viable vaccines against Covid-19, he's telling world leaders that the solutions to health and economic crises must carry the elements of our solutions to the environmental crisis too: "The single most important inter-generational responsibility is with the planet. That means the recovery, where we are going to make investments that have an impact for the next 30, 40 years, must absolutely have the sustainability of the planet in mind".

On the recently announced Pfizer vaccine, Gurría says: "It is a game changer […] The possibility of a vaccine being close is of enormous consequence. We still have to wait for it to be finalised, approved and distributed in sufficient amounts that it can get everywhere, so we are calculating that we are going to spend most of 2021 still living with the virus. But it changes expectations; the whole mood has improved considerably since the announcement."

On the refusal of Donald Trump, leader of the OECD's biggest single funder, to concede defeat in the US presidential election, Gurría sounds an upbeat note: "I believe that we will have an orderly transition of power in the United States come 20th January 2021. I believe in the institutions in the United States, I believe that the political forces in the United States will eventually align."

Finally, as talks drag on over a new Brexit deal on the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom, Gurría says he still expects a deal to be struck: "I believe that the common interest will lead to a deal […] The impact in Europe is going to be limited to the trade with the UK. The impact in the UK is going to be very serious, not only because of the flows of trade and flows of investment, but also because the overall business mood will be affected. So I am still counting on a deal."

Produced by Mathilde Bénézet

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Attacks in France and Austria: Europe’s response to extremism

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:40Modified: 13/11/2020 – 17:42

TALKING EUROPE © FRANCE 24
This Friday..

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:40Modified: 13/11/2020 – 17:42

TALKING EUROPE
TALKING EUROPE © FRANCE 24

This Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris terror attacks, in which 130 people were killed. The last few weeks have seen more bloodshed, with attacks in the Paris region, in Nice and in the Austrian capital Vienna. European leaders are looking for solutions: ways to stop hate being preached, broadcast and acted upon, while defending individual freedoms of speech and of conscience. In our debate we ask two leading members of the European Parliament, from France and from Austria, what they believe should be done.

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Produced by Yi Song and Perrine Desplats

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Our guests

  • Andreas SCHIEDER, Austrian MEP, Socialists & Democrats
  • Nathalie LOISEAU, French MEP, Renew Europe

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