Saturday

10th Apr 2021

Slovakia: second weekend of nationwide Covid-19 testing

  • Slovak prime minister Igor Matovic at last month's EU summit, where he let slip to German chancellor Angela Merkel his plans for mass nationwide testing of citizens (Photo: Igor Matovic/Facebook)

Slovakia is organising its second round of national mass-testing for Covid-19 over the weekend in attempt to turn the tide of the epidemic.

The experiment has sparked both praise and criticism of the government - and has also been somewhat overshadowed by this week's unprecedented arrests of senior ex-police officials and judges on corruption and organised crime charges.

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Some 3.6 million people from a 5.5 million population were tested with antigen tests last weekend, as part of the nationwide operation dubbed as "Joint Responsibility" and coordinated by the army and municipalities.

Small children (aged up to 10) and the elderly (65+ years-old) were advised not to take part. Overall, around one percent of those participating tested positive.

The testing continues on Saturday (7 November) in around half the country, in regions with the highest number of infected identified in the first round - mainly in the northern part of Slovakia, close to borders with Poland and the Czech Republic.

The repetition of testing in those zones is being presented by the government as the way to identify more infections, due to both the virus spreading and possible previously incorrect results from the antigen tests.

"Although we have our own Slovak nuclear weapon against Covid [i.e. nationwide testing], it will be a tough fight. But we will manage" prime minister Igor Matovic posted on Facebook earlier this week - as he announced that he himself was going into quarantine, after a direct contact with an infected person.

The mass testing was a complex logistical operation, which the government announced just days before it was rolled out.

Merkel slip

In fact, Matovic was criticised after he confessed that he had revealed his plan to German chancellor Angela Merkel on the margins of last month's EU summit, while president Zuzana Caputova, officially the head of Slovakia's armed forces, only learnt of it from his press conference later.

And the preparation was marked by confusion and uncertainty over how many health professionals would volunteer to do testing and how the government will achieve the high participation by citizens needed to identify as many of the infected as possible, and so make the whole exercise worthy of its financial and human capital costs.

But - despite long queues and traffic jams on the first day of testing last Saturday (31 October) - the experiment was ultimately praised by most experts for identifying almost 40,000 infected over two day, compared with the average daily figure of 2,500 identified by regular tests.

'Ticket to freedom'

The operation was followed by a government order to keep a 10-day isolation for all those either infected or untested, while those who tested negative have been allowed outside only with their negative "Covid certificate" - which Matovic tagged as their "ticket to freedom".

Slovak citizens are required to present the document at their work place, shops and other public spaces or even when casually checked by police when outdoors.

"This exercise has boosted ammunition for critics of Matovic, to say that he is a chaotic megalomaniac ready to risk everything for his own ideas and to curb citizens' freedom," Michal Cirner of the Institute of Political Sciences at University of Presov told EUobserver.

Epidemiologists meanwhile argue that it will take a while before they can confirm the real effect of the mass testing: almost 2,000 new cases were registered on Wednesday (6 November) in Slovakia, with 119 patients currently in intensive care and 97 receiving ventilation.

In total, 286 people have died of Covid-19 in Slovakia - mainly in the second wave of the epidemic since the summer.

Aside from the more-or-less improvised pandemic measures introduced by the centre-right coalition of Matovic, Slovakia politically has been recently overwhelmed by corruption charges against senior ex-police officials and judges - many of them linked with the previous ruling Social Democrats (Smer-SD) led by ex-premier Robert Fico.

Following the parliamentary elections in late February, a number of prominent judges, businessmen and state officials, including the special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik, were detained by the National Crime Agency (NAKA).

To this list was added the ex-police chief Tibor Gaspar, and former leaders of NAKA and the anti-corruption police unit itself on Thursday (5 November).

They are accused of participating in a 13-member group within the police management, which carried out blackmail, distributed bribes, and organised illegal monitoring of opposition politicians or journalists.

The charges are based on testimonies by several detained officials.

"It seems that our state was indeed abducted by mafia," says Cirner, amid media speculation that more senior figures from the Smer-SD party may be indicted. "It is hard to believe that these kinds of links between politicians, judges, businessmen and police structures were actually present in the member state of EU and Nato."

Author bio

Lucia Virostkova is a reporter at Slovak public TV, and worked previously at EUobserver.

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