The Czech government announced on Tuesday May 25 the resignation of the country’s fourth Minister of Health since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Petr Arenberger was forced to quit after being accused of hiding millions of crowns (tens of thousands of euros) of income on its tax returns and by neglecting to declare most of its real estate.
His departure marks the ignominious end of a tenure as Minister of Health who, when he was not appointed until early April, seemed poised to push forward the Czech Republic’s purchase of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.
Arenberger himself had replaced Jan Blatný, whose Caution regarding the use of vaccines not approved by the EMA won him the disfavour of Miloš Zeman, Russophile President of the Czech Republic.
Indeed, when Zeman welcomed Arenberger as the nation’s new minister, he did so with a clear warning: no more delay on the purchase of the Sputnik V would be tolerated, declaring that anyone who continued to block the use of the Russian jab was “responsible for those who die for lack of vaccines”.
Arenberger quickly downplayed speculation he was appointed with the intention of bringing Sputnik V to the Czech Republic.
Nonetheless, its history of pro-Sputnik statements made it seem irrelevant, as revelations about Russia’s involvement in an explosion at a Czech weapons depot in Vrbětice in 2014 led to a dramatic deterioration in Czech relations. -Russians.
As the Czech Republic expelled 81 Russian diplomats from Prague, the acquisition of Sputnik was inevitably scrapped.
And despite the rapid acceleration vaccine deployment in the Czech Republic during his tenure, Arenberger has never been able to shake off the puppet image of President Zeman, in his abandoned attempt to foster “vaccine diplomacy” ties between the Republic Czech and Russia.
Rather than appointing a fifth Minister of Health during Covid, however, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš – to the surprise – chose to return to the country’s premiere.
Adam Vojtěch was forced out when Covid cases first started to increase significantly in the Czech Republic last September – but it still enjoys a significantly higher popularity rating than Arenberger.
Mop-top TV song star
Vojtěch’s popularity stems from his successful handling of the first wave of the pandemic – and is not hurt by his signature Beatles broomstick and past appearance in the Superstar TV singing contest.
After his resignation, Vojtěch won public favor by broadcasting a moving rendition of “My Way” on a popular TV talk show.
But the latest ministerial change sparked a ridiculous wave, with commentators describing the movement as “tragicomic”.
Zeman had previously fired Vojtěch as “a fair weather minister, not a Covid minister”.
Babis could, with this latest (re) appointment, attempt to rekindle the kind of public support that characterized the Czech Republic’s much-appreciated response to the first wave of the virus, when an early preventive lockdown stopped the virus in its momentum.
The country’s unity collapsed when the second wave struck in the fall.
Responsibility was later blamed on the government for the world’s worst death and covid rates, while Babiš alienated some voters by publicly berating citizens for crimes such as attend open air markets in Prague.
The desire to find scapegoats for the dire situation then became a kind of blame game between the government and the public.
As the numbers worsened, the country’s second health minister Roman Prymula was gutted in the press after attending a meeting at a closed restaurant and neglecting to wear a face mask outside.
His successor, Blatný, strongly insisted on EMA’s approval for the jabs, then angered pro-Russian forces, who held him responsible for the slow rollout of vaccines in the country.
However, many public opinions believe that Babiš himself should be held accountable. At the end of March, the Million Moments for Democracy campaign organization highlighted the government’s failures in painting 24000 white crosses in Prague’s Old Town Square – one for each Czech virus victim.
While poignant, this politicization of the national tragedy was further evidence of the country’s polarization in a Covid blame game. Benjamin Roll, president of Million moments for democracy, told EUobserver, “Babiš is the main problem. The only thing that matters to him is public opinion – and that is a big problem when we talk about unpopular measures, but necessary for public health.”
Arberger’s resignation this week has come full circle for the Czech Republic. Babiš may be hoping that with the reappointment of the country’s People’s Health Premier, and with cases and deaths rapidly declining, public sentiment will start to shift in his favor – ahead of the October elections.
But for others, the latest set of musical chairs at the Czech Republic’s health ministry is further and far-fetched proof of the government’s continued inability to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.