The pandemic crisis hit Slovakia in its most vulnerable period – just after the parliamentary elections in which the opposition defeated the coalition. Despite the fact that Bratislava had to manage a transition to a new government, Slovakia is one of the least affected countries. But for how long?
Views within the current government coalition diverge on some fundamental issues (allowing commercial companies and services to operate vs. stronger quarantine controls). And the opposition is also using the crisis to score political points (with the slogan ‘We had the COVID under control – you don’t‘).
On 6 March, the first case of the disease was recorded in Slovakia. This case was related to vacation in Italy. However, the first measures to prevent the spread of the disease were taken more than a week before. On 27 February, the government established a crisis staff headed by the Minister of Interior, and the first road controls began at the state borders. Following confirmation of the first case, further measures were taken:
- stop of arrivals from and departures for Italy
- ban on visits to all health facilities
- prohibition of school trips and excursions outside Slovakia
- ban on visits to social services, prisons, and orphanages
On 12 March, the following measures were added:
- closure of all types of schools for at least 14 days
- implementation of border controls
- no entry for foreigners without residence or work in Slovakia
- restrictions to shopping centres over the weekend
- compulsory domestic quarantine for people coming from abroad
- closure of international airports, international transport, social and cultural institutions, bars, ski resorts, amusement parks, and other similar facilities
On 15 March, Slovakia recorded 61 infected people and the government declared an emergency. Under this measure, all shops were closed, with some exceptions such as groceries, pharmacies, or drugstores.
This period was also accompanied by discussions on the lack of medical supplies (face masks, respirators, rapid tests, etc), compensatory aid for employees and businesses, as well as political skirmishes between the outgoing coalition and the incoming one. The incoming coalition of Igor Matovič criticised the outgoing government of Peter Pellegrini, especially for the low number of tested persons, the high cost of medical supplies, and the non-transparent way in which they were purchased. After the change of government on 21 March, the tables have turned and Smer-SD has begun criticising the new government.
Igor Matovič’s new government has put great emphasis on mass testing of people from the very start. Temperature is measured before entering each hospital.
The high-risk groups consist mainly of Slovaks returning from abroad and inhabitants of Roma settlements. While the first group is obliged to immediately begin a 14-day quarantine in one of the state premises, the second group is significantly more risky. The government reports on its website about coronavirus:
Marginalised Roma communities (MRC) form a specific risk (i.e., endangered) group in the prevention and protection of the population against the spread of coronavirus (poor health, insufficient hygienic conditions, impaired access to health services, lower awareness of hygiene, higher population density, the migration of MRC members for work to and from abroad). In the current epidemiological situation, we have seen an increased return of MRC members from abroad to Slovakia. They return and travel through countries with significantly worse epidemiological situations, creating a high risk of COVID-19 being introduced into Roma settlements with an extremely high probability of spreading and developing epidemics inside and outside settlements.
Meanwhile it has been paying special attention to the Roma communities, and settlements are tested one by one with the help of the army.
Probably the biggest debate was about the adoption of the current measure – the limitation of freedom of movement during the Easter holidays. From 8 April at 12 a.m. to 13 April at 11:59 p.m., citizens were forbidden to leave their district. The exceptions were:
- usual route to and from work and trip for performance of business or other similar activity
- leaving home to the extent necessary to purchase basic life necessities (food, medications, medical equipment, hygienic supplies, cosmetics and other drugstore items, feed and other needs for animals, arranging care for children and pets, and refilling fuel)
- leaving home to procure the above-mentioned life necessities for another person within a district (if in Bratislava or Košice then within the city), that is, voluntary work or neighbourhood assistance
- going to a healthcare facility for an urgent examination or accompanying to a close person or relative for this purpose
- a sojourn in the countryside within a district (or within the province of Bratislava or Košice)
- travelling to a close person or relative who is dependent on such care within the district (or within the city for Bratislava and Košice)
- attending the funeral of a close person
Already on the first day traffic stalled in many areas of Slovakia. Controls at the borders of each district have caused jams that have held people up for hours.
All applicable measures can be consulted on a special website established by the government.
The condition of workers
Slovakia is one of the least affected countries (as of 29 April 2020 there were 1391 infected, 484 cured, and 22 mortalities). However, everyone realises that while the pandemic can be mitigated, the economic impact will affect us as much as it will the economies of European countries. Everyone is preparing for the crisis: the state, banks, large businesses, small businesses, and trade unions. The state has adopted measures in the first stage (1-7) and the second stage (8-10) to mitigate the effects of the current measures:
- the government will compensate 80% of employees’ salaries in companies whose branches have been mandatorily closed
- the government will provide a contribution to freelancers and employees based on the decrease in company sales:
more than 20% decrease in sales – 180€ compensation to workers involved
more than 40% – 300€
more than 60% – 420€
more than 80% – 540€
- the government will provide bank guarantees of € 500 million per month
- employees in quarantine and parents providing care for family members will be compensated with 55% of their gross salary for the entire period
- postponement of payment of mandatory contributions by employers in the event of sales decreasing more than 40%
- postponement of income tax prepayments in the event of sales decreases of more than 40%
- opportunity to offset the not yet applied losses since 2014, inclusively
- postponement of loan repayments for citizens for 9 months
- postponement of instalments for self-employed, small and medium-sized businesses by 9 months
- increased contactless payment limits from 20€ to 50€
It is evident that the measures are oriented more towards the sustainability of business conditions than at preserving profit levels at all costs. To some extent, this also corresponds to employees’ goals.
However, neither the first nor the second stage escaped slight criticism. Trade unions criticised the adoption of the first seven measures – not the measures as such but the way they were adopted, as no one consulted with them. In the second stage, the postponement of loan repayments, or to be more precise the effectiveness of this measure is the object of particular criticism. Although a citizen may request a postponement of repayments for up to 9 months, during this period the bank will waive the interest that would increase the total amount due.
The crisis shows that Slovaks are largely disciplined. The measures began very early, the shops closed, and the streets were emptied. And when people have to go out, they wear face masks. Everyone wonders whether the current measures will last for weeks or even months. Whatever the answer, everyone suspects that Slovakia is at the edge of the abyss: after the pandemic, there will be an economic crisis, and on this level the pandemic containment will not help Slovaks. European economies are interconnected (Slovakia’s economy being principally linked to Germany’s) and it is only a matter of time before mass redundancies begin. Therefore, among many Slovaks concerns about the economic situation are replacing health concerns.