Thursday

23rd Sep 2021

Czech government loses fourth health minister during pandemic

  • Back to the beginning: Adam Vojtěch was the first health minister during the pandemic, forced out when Covid cases began to rise. Now he's back as health minister number five - after performing "My Way" on a popular TV chatshow (Photo: YouTube)

The Czech government on Tuesday (25 May) announced the resignation of the country's fourth health minister since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Petr Arenberger was forced to quit after being accused of hiding millions of crowns (tens of thousands of euros) in revenue on his tax returns and neglecting to declare most of his owned real estate.

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His departure marks an ignominious end to a tenure as health minister who, when appointed only in early April, seemed set to push through the Czech Republic's procurement of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.

Arenberger himself had replaced Jan Blatný, whose caution when it came to the use of non-EMA-approved vaccines earned him the disfavour of Miloš Zeman, the Czech Republic's Russophile president.

Indeed, when Zeman welcomed Arenberger as the nation's new minister, he did so with a clear warning that no further hold-ups on the Sputnik V procurement would be tolerated, declaring that anyone who continued to block the use of the Russian jab was "responsible for those who die due to a lack of vaccines".

Arenberger quickly downplayed speculation that he had been appointed with the intention of bringing Sputnik V to the Czech Republic.

Nonetheless, his history of pro-Sputnik statements made him seem out of place since revelations about Russian involvement in an explosion at a Czech arms depot in Vrbětice in 2014 brought about a dramatic deterioration in Czech-Russian relations.

As the Czech Republic expelled 81 Russian diplomats from Prague, the procurement of Sputnik inevitably fell by the wayside.

And despite the rapid speeding-up of the Czech Republic's vaccine rollout during his tenure, Arenberger was never able to shake off the image of being a puppet for president Zeman, in his abandoned attempt to foster 'vaccine diplomacy' ties between the Czech Republic and Russia.

Rather than appointing a fifth health minister during Covid, though, prime minister Andrej Babiš has – to much astonishment – chosen to go back to the nation's first.

Adam Vojtěch was forced out when Covid cases began to rise significantly in the Czech Republic for the first time last September - but he still enjoys vastly higher popularity ratings than Arenberger.

Mop-top TV singing star

Vojtěch's popularity stems from his successful handling of the first wave of the pandemic – and is not harmed by his characteristic Beatles mop-top and past appearance on the Superstar television singing contest.

After his resignation, Vojtěch garnered further public favour by belting out a stirring rendition of "My Way" on a popular TV chat show.

But the latest ministerial change has sparked a wave of ridicule, with commentators describing the move as "tragi-comic".

Zeman previously dismissed Vojtěch as "a fair-weather minister, not a Covid minister".

Babis may, with this latest (re)appointment, be attempting to rekindle the kind of public support which characterised the Czech Republic's much-lauded response to the first wave of the virus, when an early, preventive lockdown stopped the virus in its tracks.

The country's togetherness crumbled when the second wave struck in the autumn.

Blame was then pinned squarely on the government for the world's worst covid case- and death-rates, while Babiš alienated some voters by publicly reprimanding citizens for misdemeanours such as attending outdoor markets in Prague.

A desire to find scapegoats for the dire situation then became something of a blame game between the government and the public.

As the numbers worsened, the country's second health minister, Roman Prymula, was eviscerated in the press after attending a meeting at a closed restaurant and neglecting to wear a face mask outside.

His successor, Blatný's, staunch insistence on EMA approval for jabs then earned the ire of pro-Russian forces, who held him responsible for the nation's sluggish vaccine rollout.

However, much public opoinion feel Babiš himself should be held accountable. In late March, the Million Moments for Democracy campaigning organisation highlighted the government's failures by painting 24,000 white crosses on Prague's Old Town Square – one for every Czech victim of the virus.

While poignant, this politicisation of national tragedy was further evidence of the country's polarisation into a Covid blame game. Benjamin Roll, chairman of Million Moments for Democracy, told EUobserver, "Babiš is the main problem. The only thing that is important for him is public opinion – and this presents a big problem when we are talking about measures which are unpopular, but necessary for the sake of public health".

Arenberger's resignation this week has brought the Czech Republic full circle. Babiš may be hoping that, with the re-appointment of the nation's popular first health minister, and with cases and deaths rapidly decreasing, public sentiment will start to shift in his favour - ahead of elections this October.

But for others, the latest game of musical chairs in the Czech Republic's health ministry is further, farcical evidence of the government's continued inability to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

Author bio

William Nattrass is a Prague-based British journalist and Visegrád Four current affairs commentator, who has written for the Independent, the Spectator and Cap X.

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