As the coronavirus continues to kill thousands of people a day across Europe, one country stands out for keeping its death toll low.
Slovakia, a landlocked country of 5.5 million, closed its schools, shops and borders earlier than any other country after Italy. Meanwhile, politicians and TV anchors embraced face masks even before the government made them mandatory.
The measures bore fruit: Six weeks after the first reported infection, Slovakia has just 18 fatalities and is bottom of the European list of deaths per capita, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University as of April 26.
“Speed is of the essence,” Eva Schernhammer, head of the epidemiology department in Medical University in Vienna, said by phone. “It would be ideal to contain the epidemic at a stage when you can trace back contacts of every single new case. In hindsight, Slovakia did the right thing.”
The head of the Bratislava region, Juraj Droba, closed schools two days after the first case was reported, a week before the rest of the country, because he “could see what was happening in Italy.” The region is home to more than 10% of the country’s population.
Slovak Chief Health Inspector Jan Mikas also ordered police to stop a convoy of skiers returning from Austria and put them into supervised quarantine. About 60 people tested positive.
The government is also slowly reopening the economy after it was crippled by the lockdown, which is easier to impose in smaller countries.
Scientists warn it would be premature to call the battle over.
“If the trend is maintained, we can say we’ve handled the situation as one of the best countries,” said Martin Smatana, the head of government Health Policy Institute, which models the virus’s spread. “In the majority of population, the virus isn’t spreading.”