Slovak government under fire as COVID-19 death rate surges to worst in the world

Slovak government under fire as COVID-19 death rate surges to worst in the world
Prime Minister Igor Matovic said the cabinet will discuss buying the Sputnik V vaccine.
By bne IntelliNews February 18, 2021

Slovakia has recorded the highest coronavirus death rate in the world, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths at 1.782 per 100,000 citizens as of February 16, followed by Portugal (1.352), Montenegro (1.319) and Czechia (1.245), according to data published by Our World in Data.

This comes only a few months after Slovakia became the first country in the world to carry out the nationwide testing of the whole population. 

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova warned that the epidemiological situation in the country is extraordinarily grave and serious, attributing the current adverse coronavirus figures to the delay in the introduction of a strict lockdown. 

After meeting with scientists and medical experts, she called on the government and public authorities to apply more precise tracking of contacts, while increasing the supervision and enforcement of emergency measures. They should also carry out more consistent and reasonable communication with the public. 

According to her, the country should not overestimate antigen testing and instead boost its PCR testing capacities. "Aside from increased mobility, the mass testing also has a psychological effect," she stressed, implying that the people often perceive their negative certificates as a clean bill of health.

As of February 16, Slovakia´s National Health Information Centre reported more than 6,000 new positive cases and 105 deaths. “The most significant factor that has prevented coronavirus cases from falling in Slovakia is a high occurrence of the variant that was found in Britain,” said Slovak epidemiologist and vice rector of Trnava University Marek Majdan to the Associated Press.

Two weeks ago, the British mutation of coronavirus was found in 74% of almost 2,000 samples examined recently in the country. "It's spread throughout Slovakia," warned Prime Minister Igor Matovic. 

As of today, the government also approved the proposal by the Slovak health ministry to activate the EU civil protection mechanism in the context of the deteriorating pandemic situation and ask for doctors and nurses from abroad to come and help to provide care for patients suffering from coronavirus in anaesthesiology and intensive care units. 

"Foreign teams that would come to Slovakia to provide healthcare would only stay for the time necessary in order to achieve the goal. For the time being we expect that the length of stay would be one month," said the ministry in its report.

The Austrian defence ministry responded that it can lend the medical staff of the Austrian army. "Swift and bureaucracy-free aid is a requirement of European solidarity. That’s why we’ve admitted patients from France, Italy and Montenegro. Now, the Austrian army will support Slovakia," said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. 

"The Austrian Armed Forces are available whenever the situation calls for it, be it in Austria or abroad... So, it goes without saying that we stand by Slovakia in these times of hardship," added Austrian Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner.

As of February 17, the government approved a list of 19 districts to be labelled as the most severe degree concerning coronavirus. Schools are obliged to stay closed and people are allowed to go to work only with a negative test for coronavirus no older than seven days. It's forbidden to leave or enter these districts. 

The country also introduced mandatory 14-day isolation upon arriving in the country, with people obliged to wait at least eight days before being tested with an RT-PCR test. The isolation also applies to those who have visited other countries in the past two weeks. 

"People who have exclusively visited EU countries, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in the past 14 days are subject to isolation. The person will be tested by the PCR method on the eighth day of isolation at the earliest. If the person doesn't participate in testing but has no symptoms during isolation, it will end after 14 days," said Public Health Authority spokesperson Dasa Rackova, quoted by the Slovak News Agency.

The Slovak Association of Employers Unions called on the government to give the green light to the Russian anti-covid vaccine Sputnik V, even without the EU's approval. 

"It isn't appropriate to pursue geopolitical interests at the moment. We should focus on human lives instead. If we waited for a registration permit to be issued by the European Medicines Agency, we could be outmatched by other countries. There could be a lack of vaccines, and this could lead to a significant increase in the price of Sputnik V," said its general secretary Oto Nevicky.

The Slovak Pandemic Commission has recommended the government to start talks with the Russian side aimed at acquiring the Sputnik V vaccine. The ministers are set to discuss the issue on February 18. 

“It is timely for the government to start talks with the Russian side about supplies of Sputnik V,” said Matovic on his Facebook, quoted by Reuters.

“The government will discuss this on Thursday morning,” he said. “I am in favour. It is a great vaccine with great efficiency. So far in the EU it is only being used by Hungary and I do not see a reason why we should not use it as well.”

All coalition parties but For The People support the recommendation of the Commission. For The People chairwoman Veronika Remisova said Slovakia should wait for the results of the evaluation of the Russian vaccine by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Same was stated by Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok on his Facebook page. Even though he is not against the use of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, he has reservations about whether it should be distributed in EU countries without EMA´s approval.

The junior government partner Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) agreed with negotiations with Russia, however it stressed that its safety and effectiveness must be confirmed by the Slovak State Institute for Drug Supervision.

"We're aware of people's demand for vaccination, but it would be very reckless if we released Sputnik V without any control. It is therefore important to contact our supreme professional authority first and foremost to do everything necessary to responsibly assess the benefits and quality of the vaccine," said SaS.

The Voice-SD party of former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini criticized the government for creating chaos in the anti-coronavirus measures and for bringing the country to the worst place in terms of the number of deaths per million people. It called on the cabinet to resign, appealing to President Caputova to appoint an expert caretaker government to serve until a snap election can be held. 

The resignation of Health Minister Marek Krajci was requested by former health ministers Tomas Drucker (extra-parliamentary Good Choice), Andrea Kalavska and Richard Rasi (an Independent MP, working for Voice-SD). 

"I view Krajci as a decent man, but he should never have become a health minister, as he doesn't have the managerial prequisites to serve in such a post. This is especially true in the current crisis, when there's a need for vigorous and systematic crisis management of healthcare with an impact on the whole of society," Drucker told the news agency. 

"I'm particularly unhappy about Krajci's personnel policy, favouring family members and friends at the expense of professionalism. … Despite our good personal relationship in the past, I believe that Marek Krajci should offer his post to a more capable manager as soon as possible," he added. 

Kalavska called the current fight against the pandemic in the country catastrophic. "The highest numbers of people per capita per day are dying from coronavirus in Slovakia, and the figures keep growing. I view this as sufficient reason for the minister to accept responsibility and resign," she said.

According to Krajci, thoughtless personnel changes definitely won't help to handle the coronavirus crisis. The health ministry spokesperson Zuzana Eliasova stated that the ministry is open to cooperation. 

"The accessibility of treatment in Slovakia, purchase of artificial lung ventilation well in advance, management of mobile points for testing people across the country to detect those infected, coordination of hospitals and setting up their capacities with regard to healthcare for patients with other diagnoses, as well as other steps for the benefit of patients - this is the minister's daily agenda, along with managing important talks by the pandemic commission and setting the rules for the country along with other cabinet members," she said.