As Covid-19 cases continue to grow among coal miners in the Silesia Province in southern Poland, there are increasing worries that a similar situation might be developing in the neighboring Moravian-Silesian region, in the North-East of the Czechia. As of 16th June, Czechia had a little more than 10,000 cases and accounted for 330 deaths. While in proportion the country has more cases per hundred thousand inhabitants than Poland, its death rate is lower than its neighbor. The Moravian-Silesian region itself accounted for 1817 cases, which represent 18% of total cases in a region that holds 11% of the total Czech population. The region, an important coal mining site, has had 57 deaths as of 17th June and the Karviná border-district is the most affected one.
Located in Karviná, the Darkov mine, operated by state-owned OKD with 1800 people working directly there, has emerged as a cluster of infection. It has recorded 495 positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic. The number includes employees (65%) as well as their family members (32%), which shows the high probability that infected miners will contaminate their own family. As the number kept on rising however, it was decided to stop coal production at the Darko mine on the 22th May. Currently, the workers receive 60% of their salary. Due to a lack of qualified miners in Czechia the mine also employs commuters from Poland, out of which at least 22 have tested positive. The results have raised concerns that the contamination is becoming a cross-border issue between Poland and the Czech Republic.
Workers and their families have also had to face contradictory information from the authorities. On the 12th June, the Czech Ministry of Health announced that Czechs and foreigners returning from Portugal, Sweden and the Silesian Voivodeship (Province) would have to « prove themselves with a negative test upon their return ». The previous day, the Health Minister, Adam Vojtěch, stated that while significant cluster were developing, « we are succeeding in [preventing them from spreading], also thanks to the early warning system, clever quarantine, local area testing and the excellent work of the hygienists and the army ». Similarly, the Regional Hygiene Station of the Moravian-Silesian region ordered on 15th June that all employees of OKD mines must be preventively tested by the end of the month. Just three days before, the same regional authority had declared that, in the Karviná district, « events for more than 100 people and visits to medical and social facilities » were allowed again and municipal authorities did not have « to carry out focal disinfection of public spaces » anymore.
According to Rostislav Palicka, president of Czech Trade Unions of Miners, following a request from the mining unions when the number of cases began to rise in March, OKD put in place « personal temperature measurements, banned selling meals in the premises of the mine as well as the soups the miners have before work shift ». He thinks the crisis team put in place by the company with the participation of the trade unions and the hygienic services « works well and always finds consensus ». The company has stated that, at the beginning of June, it carried out « extensive disinfection » of all areas of the mine. As for their remaining three mines in the region, « they are limited only by reducing working hours by one hour and changing the system from four-shift to three-shift so that the shifts do not meet each other ».
Nevertheless, for the president of Czech Trade Unions of Miners, the company is in « a very difficult financial situation » and there is the « expectation that these mines will stop their operation before 2030 ». In his opinion, in these circumstances, « trade unions or workers cannot do a lot for prevention of such before unknown and specific hazard ». The current situation in the region has not yet reached the high numbers of the Silesia Province in Poland. It remains to be seen whether the government will manage to avoid the further spreading of the virus among the mining communities. Indeed, while there is little interaction between Czech and Polish trade unions, both have a similar issue with the mine operators and the authorities: the quality, quantity and process of testing.
Source: ECDC, Moravian-Silesian Region administration, Czech Ministry of Health, Deník