Slovakia, a landlocked mountainous country home to 5.46 million people on the eastern frontier of the European Union, had navigated its way through the COVID pandemic relatively unscathed in 2020.
Nationwide testing had been rolled out last October, when only 25,000 active cases had been reported.
But things dramatically worsened at the turn of the year, as the coronavirus variant first observed in the UK spread rapidly through the country – on one given day the UK variant was found in 74 percent of positive COVID samples. Within weeks, it was suffering roughly 100 COVID deaths a day, handing a country that had been praised for its low infection rate the highest death rate in the world relative to population on a one-week basis. Slovakia has now recorded more than 308,000 cases, and suffered almost 7,300 deaths.
A strict lockdown has been in place since December, but from this week, restrictions will be tightened further, including a new measure that will only allow people to travel between the hours of 8PM and 1AM to see a doctor, or to go to work. Prime Minister Igor Matovic has said if cases do not decrease later this month, he will consider more stringent measures, including a total closure of borders.
For many people in Slovakia, this is too little too late. Sara, a marketing professional who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared losing her job, said she had been working from the office even though her job could easily be done remotely. Although the Slovakian government had previously been advising businesses to urge employees to work from home if possible, Sara’s employer has insisted on staff taking unnecessary business trips, and being physically present in an office where safety measures are almost non-existent.
“Since the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic, my employer has done nothing to increase the safety of employees. She even dismissed the cleaner for about six months. Hygiene measures were even lower than before. Cleaning was voluntary, whoever was bothered by the mess had to clean,” she told VICE World News via Zoom.
While the government says the UK variant was behind the huge rise in cases, people like Sara blame the lack of serious restrictions. “These are theories and consequences of the unmanaged and underestimated response to the virus from the summer when nothing was solved in Slovakia,” she said.
Others have had no option but to be physically at work, such as Miroslava, who works as an assistant to a QC. “My boss does not take it as seriously as in the beginning – he does not wear a face mask,” Miroslava, who spoke anonymously because she feared losing her job, said.
Miroslava said she thought the reason behind the spike in the death rate was due to a poor standing of living in Slovakia, a consequence of the country’s faltering economy.
“Pensioners are worn down from a lifetime of labour, in most cases, they have poor health,” she said. “It is the result of the country's economy.”
Angelika, who works at an airport, says PPE is “paramount” in her workplace when she has been required to be there. “In our job, we have to wear protective clothing, face masks, shields, gloves, and use antibacterial products. There is even staff for checking temperatures and documents of customers and clients,” said Angelika, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was worried about the reaction she’d face at work.
Staff at her workplace need to have negative COVID tests every week, which is free for citizens as it is a government requirement for most activities when leaving the house, with some exceptions like food shopping or taking dogs for a walk within a kilometre radius of your house. Angelika said she believes the government has lost control during the latest COVID wave. “How is it possible that during a strict lockdown, infection and death rates are higher?”
In contrast, Martina has been working at home for an IT company since March last year. She says the government has been “incompetent” during the pandemic, responding to problems “from hour to hour” and leaving people confused and frustrated.
“Government officials argue with each other, and our Prime Minister puts his duties on everyone around him, from ministers to pandemic commission to local councils. Therefore, he has no responsibility,“ she said via Zoom.
While Prime Minister Matovic had his mind set on purchasing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, the leader of his junior coalition partner Veronika Remisova, insisted on following EU rules and European Medicines Agency (EMA) authorisation. As of now, Slovakia has approved the distribution of the BioNTech and Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.
But even vaccination is not a surefire way out of the crisis for Slovakia. Based on a survey published by the Slovak Academy of Sciences in December, about 45% of people do not wish to be vaccinated.
“The relevance of the currently available information and vaccination research from a long-term point of view have not convinced me why I should be vaccinated,” said Sara. “Nonetheless, I don’t rule out that I won’t change my mind over time.”