Postcard From Slovakia

7 June 2020. Updated 16 June 2020.

by Graham Strouts

Chuck Norris Bridge, linking Slovakia and Austria

With the final stage of Slovakia’s easing of lockdown restrictions complete a couple of weeks ago, the next major block to be lifted is opening the borders, now well underway: as of Thursday, the border between Czech and Slovakia re-opened without any restrictions of checks. Rather oddly, prime minister Igor Matovič claimed this represented the re-instatement of “Czechoslovakia” which must have raised a few eyebrows since of course it is nothing of the kind, merely restoring the pre-pandemic Schengen area between the two republics.

Free travel is also possible between Slovakia and Austria – at least in practice, since technically this only applies if you want to return within 48 hours of departing, otherwise you have to undergo the 14-day home quarantine. But as we discovered yesterday on a cycling trip taking us over the “Freedom Bridge” across the Moravia, there are no police checks of any kind either side of the border. It is likely (but not yet confirmed) that all border restrictions for Hungary will also be lifted by the middle of the month, or by the end of June at the latest.

Better known as the “Chuck Norris” Bridge, after a public poll revealed this as the most popular name, the fine cycling bridge stands as a powerful symbol of unity and freedom of travel between east with west, something not possible before 1992. November of last year marked the 30th anniversary of the end of socialism. This was the last time we cycled over the bridge, where a temporary mock barrier had been erected and visitors were handed “visas” as a reminder that free travel across the Moravia should not be taken for granted. Never could we have imagined that the bridge would once again be closed so soon, albeit for a different reason.

During the lockdown we went to Devin a couple of times and gazed mournfully across the river towards the shores of Austria just a few hundred yards away. We got a feeling of what it must have been like under the communist regime, except that this time, of course, restrictions were not just between east and west, but on borders everywhere.

The Slovak Government imposed a 90-day State of Emergency in March, and this will expire in a week’s time. In principle, they could simply reimpose another 90-days immediately, but this seems unlikely, with Igor Matovič, the Prime Minister, seemingly alone in his desire to do so. There is little support for the continuation of such measures from either the ruling coalition or the opposition parties. With new cases close to zero, Slovakia has escaped both the ravages of the virus and the worst excesses of the lockdown. As in much of mainland Europe, things are rapidly returning to something close to normal.

Traffic in the city is almost back to pre-Covid rates, sidewalk cafes and restaurants are busy, some schools have re-opened and people are returning to work, albeit with some changes such as staggered shifts. Cinemas and theatres remain closed due to social distancing measures which would make them uneconomic, but outdoor events are starting again including live music. Masks are much less in evidence outside, where they are only required if you breach the two-metre rule. It is permitted to sit in groups of up to six in restaurants, although the two-metre rule still applies between tables and in shops. Secondary schools will remain closed until the start of the next academic year in September.

Slovakia has one of the lowest death rates in the world, a total of only 28 deaths in a population of five-and-a-half million. As in other countries, hospitals were emptied out here to make way for Covid patients who mainly failed to materialise. Most regular operations and procedures were suspended as the Covid wards remained largely empty. GPs stopped coming to work or referred patients to specialists instead. My partner, a neurologist, saw her own patients all but disappear for several weeks, frightened away from seeking medical attention by media scare stories about over-run hospital wards. For the past few weeks, she has been going into work with barely a handful of patients to see each day. As of last week, this situation seems to have ended and she is as busy as before the lockdown.

Mainly, despite taking a big economic hit – estimated to be at least 10% – 15% of GDP – we have been very lucky here. Outside exercise was never really restricted and although everything in the city was closed for some weeks we were able to cycle along the river where buffets remained open for take-away beer and sandwiches.

While some are concerned about a second wave and would prefer the borders to remain closed, it seems unlikely there will be any return to lockdown even if infections tick up. Across Europe, borders are re-opening like floodgates. Italy, which had one of the hardest lockdowns and the highest number of deaths, abruptly changed course last week to throw open its borders and welcome all comers in an attempt to save its tourism industry. Overall, there seems to be a sense that enough is enough and that whether the virus has run its course or not, there is little public appetite for imposing such draconian restrictions again as other concerns take over.

You can read more by Graham Strouts on his blog.

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