How Slovakia Fought COVID-19

By Dr. Marian Kolenčík, PhD., President of the Management Board, International Security and Emergency Management Institute, Slovakia

Photo credit: Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic.

COVID-19 has caused a hitherto unknown crisis around the world. The crisis has revealed how countries are prepared for similar situations in legal, material and procedural terms. It also revealed people’s nature as well as politicians’ ability to take decisions and act. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis pointed out the shortcomings in the civil protection and healthcare fields. It outlined the lack of coordination of the various components fighting biological threats, as well as the lack of understanding of some of the basic principles of professional and strategic communication. At the same time, the crisis has shown that solidarity between people still exists; apart from a few individuals who profit from this crisis in the form of fraud and crime. Slovakia (5.45 million inhabitants) began to cope with coronavirus in its own way: successfully, one might say. Indeed, at the end of May, there were a total of 1520 infected cases in Slovakia, 1338 cured patients and a low level of victims (28 people died). So, what played a decisive role in this positive result? To be able to properly evaluate and anticipate possible developments in due time, it was important to monitor what was happening in the neighboring countries in Europe, but also around the world. Thanks to great experts in the field of infectiology and other medical fields, we prevented the worst to happen in Slovakia. The situation was all the more complicated since we faced a change of government in our country at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

The early response of the previous government as well as the prompt and effective action taken by the new government provided a solid basis for further success. It included the adoption of the first substantive measures and the assumption of responsibility in the decision-making.

Photo credit: Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic.

However, without the involvement of some key actors of the public services and law enforcement field, no government would have been able to maintain such a low rate of deaths and infected people. Indeed, some other factors also contributed to contain the COVID-19 crisis in Slovakia.

1-First, it is important to mention the high commitment and readiness of our medical staff, working despite insufficient material equipment. This work was supported by the deployment of firefighters and armed forces to ensure the quarantine and border controls, but also the testing and other measures.

2-Second, the rocket-fast reaction of the media, which motivated responsible behavior, also contributed to contain the virus in Slovakia: editors, reporters and presenters on private and public television immediately began to wear respirators, homemade or surgical masks. Radio anchors and presenters also supported this general movement. And so, did all politicians appearing in public, but also during their daily lives, regardless of their political affiliation to the governing coalition or the opposition. The popular president Zuzana Čaputová played an important role in the public education by trying to show the example and wearing personal protective equipment. The involvement of Slovakian political leaders also contributed to reduce fear (or shame) of individuals in wearing respiratory protection in public and disinfecting their hands. When meeting a person in neighbouring countries, at the beginning of the crisis you could recognize a Slovak at first sight. He wore a homemade mask or respirator bona fide.

3-There were also a lot of reactions and contributions on social media. They spread true information and tried as much as possible to fight hoaxes and fake news. National, regional, but also local social media groups dedicated to COVID-19 were created, so people could support each other. The mass media had a major influence on people’s behavior, inciting them to start producing cloth masks for their own use, but also for neighbors and acquaintance. Although their effectiveness for the wearer is minimal compared to surgical mask or FFP2 / FFP3 masks, they have at least partially been able to prevent the transmission of coronavirus to others. The huge media campaign “Be responsible”, including all the different aspects of prevention (distance, disinfection and respiratory protection), has been helping as well.

4-Furthermore, the voluntary activities of many non-governmental organizations and civil groups have made it possible to ensure that individuals comply with the established measures, especially within at-risk groups. Cities and municipalities also contributed actively in the adoption of measures related to quarantine and public health protection.

5-Private companies have also taken the initiative in the fight against coronavirus. Many of them have taken their own initiatives to protect their employees.

6-Finally, several professional organizations and professional institutes selflessly provided front-line workers with counseling activities. For example, the Institute for International Security and Crisis Management, in addition to other support activities for the Office of the President of the Slovak Republic and other state bodies, created a Guide for police and gendarmerie officers, on How to protect themselves in coronavirus risk environments. This guide has finally been disseminated through the European Commission, EUROPOL, CEPOL and other actors worldwide. In addition to texts on the characteristics of COVID-19, the guide also contains the definition of risk zones, further recommends how to protect yourself before, during and after police duties (donning and doffing protective equipment, decontamination) and finally how to deal with waste. (In case of interest from Law Enforcement Agencies, ISEMI can offer it for free after sending the application to [email protected]).

Photo credit: Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic.

How did it all start in Slovakia and from the crisis management point of view?

Chronologically it started on March 6th with the first case recorded. The emergency situation was declared in the country and put into force on the 12th of March. On March 14th, Slovakia recorded 7 cases. The state of emergency in the medical facilities was declared on March 16th and the closing down of shopping malls and most stores subsequently came into force. Gradually, all public events were banned, borders and airports started to close, as well as manufacturing companies, and public transportation. Finally, authorities put a ban on visiting churches. Eventually, Slovakia implemented a total lock-down for only five days during the Easter holidays from 8 to 13 of April.

The first release phase began on April 22nd. The end of May was then marked by a significant stabilization and the implementation of the last series of release measures. There are currently 159 active cases (June 25) and 28 death, with none in intensive care units or with pulmonary ventilation. Despite having performed over 200,000 tests to detect the virus, it is very unlikely that all cases of infection were detected, however the situation is so far under control.

It is also important to mention that parliamentary elections were held in Slovakia just before the outbreak. Thousands of people came back from neighboring and other countries (Great Britain, Italy, Austria, Germany, etc.), where the COVID-19 was already present, to participate to these elections and vote. Additionally, thousands of people come to work from neighboring countries on a daily basis, so the risk of importing the virus in the country before the closing of the borders was significant. Therefore, it is likely that the COVID-19 occurred in Slovakia before the first official case was detected. The highest number of imported cases recorded were from Austria (216 cases), the United Kingdom (116), the Czech Republic (46) and Germany (43). In total, cases of COVID-19 were imported from 52 countries, according to the Public Health Office of the Slovak Republic (UVZSR-1).

ISEMI, Source: National Health Information Center (NCZI) 2020

One of the lessons learned from this crisis is the fact that, in similar crisis situations, it is essential to deal with the appropriate dose of realism. It is important not to underestimate the risks or minimize the situation, but also not to spread panic. Pandemic crisis management must be based on professional approaches, tested procedures and mutual trust between politicians, citizens, the media, the private sector and NGOs. Everyone must act as one. Public complaining, criticizing and initiating various waves of resistance and protest have no place in such a difficult situation. This is the only way to successfully manage a crisis and this is how, so far in Slovakia, it has been effectively managed.

On the other hand, it is necessary to provide the public authorities in charge with relevant feedback through direct communication. Legitimate and constructive criticism is always in place when procedures and mechanisms provide evidence of failure or lack of efficiency. And such criticisms have been welcomed in Slovakia.

Our hope now is that we will all be prepared for the next potential waves of COVID-19, in case an effective and safe vaccine has not yet been found. We also hope to successfully cope with the economic consequences of this crisis, which are still yet to come.

Photo credit: Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic.

Dr Marian Kolenčík graduated at the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia (Master, Special education), at the University of Trnava, Faculty of Health (Dr., PhD. Social science including crime prevention, social-pathological phenomena, psychology, etc.). Afterwards he obtained a postgraduate diploma in CBRN security management including counter-terrorism operations at the Lodz University, Police Academy and military institutes (Poland). He successfully completed the Postgraduate Study of Criminal Profiling and Crime Scene Analysis (The Forensic Criminology Institute, USA). Furthermore, he studied in France (Institut International des Droits de l´Homme – L´Université Shuman – Strasbourg and L´Ecole nationale d´administration, Paris) and got trained in a Counter-CBRN terrorism field by French Security Forces. Since 1995, he has been providing advisory services and analysis in connection to operational activities of different European security forces and Europol in fighting organise crime and terrorism in connection to CBRN threats. He has also been involved as a trainer, key expert or short-term expert in many projects related to crime prevention, fight against terrorism, organize crime and CBRN threats. Dr. Kolenčík has been working as external expert over 8 years for the European Commission as consultant for Internal Security Strategy.