Surprise! It's Still a Pandemic!

On July 11th, there was a party at a club in Prague called Techtle Mechtle -- best translated as "hanky-panky"-- in the popular Vinohrady section of Prague 2.  The mask requirement had been lifted some time before, and so very few patrons wore them. Temperatures were checked at the door. In short, all of the anti-COVID-19 provisions were followed.

So far, 158 cases of coronavirus have been traced directly to that event, with 90 of them being people who attended the party itself. The rest are people that they, in turn, have infected. That figure, importantly, includes a young woman who, after the party, went to work at a summer camp, which are tremedously common here. Various other camps have also had staff or campers test positive, causing them to have to close.

It's a rather stark illustration of the ability of so-called "super spreader events" to make a huge impact. Only 20% of positive cases in the Czech Republic are due to untraceable community spread--those random everyday interactions that we've done so much to make safer through wearing masks, washing our hands, etc. The other 80% have been from specific, traceable outbreaks: offices, factories, mines, camps, and clubs.

As things in Prague and the Czech Republic more broadly have returned to something approaching normal--all kinds of business and shops are open, masks are only required in the Metro and in health facilities, travel within much of the EU has been resumed, Czech children are going to summer camps--the new infection numbers have started rising.

The last time I wrote about COVID-19, back in late April, was essentially at the end of the first phase of the pandemic. For the following 8-12 weeks, things stayed pretty well under control. Now, however...when there are 200 new cases in Prague alone and the daily totals of newly infected are matching and sometimes exceeding the worst days of March, can we really say things are under control?

For some perspective, of course, it's important to remember that the height of the pandemic in the Czech Republic was nowehere near the heights in the UK, France, Itlay, Spain, the US, etc. As one Czech health official said when asked if we were experiencing a second wave of infections, "How can you call it a second wave? We never had a first wave." For comparison, about .15% of the Czech population has tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic; 1.38% of the US population has, almost ten times as many; .45% of the UK population has, three times as many. We simply never had a first wave.

Personally, I think that's probably why 90+ people felt safe going to a party at a crowded nightclub in mid-July. It's why people feel safe going on holiday. Why parents feel safe sending their children to summer camp. There are still a manageable number of cases. There hasn't been a sharp uptick in the number of deaths. Everything seems okay. The desire to believe that we'll probably all be okay is very strong.

However, there are currently very few restrictions in place. By and large, life still continues on as it did during the June lull. Which means that, theoretically, the government could reinstate some precautions: everyone expects the mask requirement to be reinstated for all forms of public transit and public buildings any day now, for example. But...are they going to be willing to shut down clubs? Restaurants? Offices? Summer camps? Are they willing to close the borders to tourists again when they just so recently opened? 

Obviously, many people at this moment would talk of individual responsbility. Which, fair: the 90+ people who went to that club were playing with fire. But the people *they* infected may have just been going about their lives. Moreover, individual responsibility can only be used as a bulwark against public disaster when the individual understands both the nature of the disaster and its likelihood. With hardly any restrictions in place--and cities offering Czechs discounts on visits to try to encourage domestic tourism--is it any wonder that the message Czechs received was, "It's over. Everything's fine. Return to your normal lives?""

No-one can say whether this is just a moment of crisis caused by a few events or the beginning of a long period of increased cases. It may still be that the Czech Republic will be cited as one of the nations that handled COVID-19 well. Time will tell; it always does.

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