The Antivirus rescue program was undoubtedly one of the best that the coalition government of the ANO movement and the ČSSD (now SOCDEM) demonstrated during the covid period. That help was devised and deployed quickly, which counted doubly in the unprecedented time of spring 2020. The officials of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs under the leadership of Jana Maláčová performed a highly above-standard and flexible performance by the standards of the Czech state administration, when they completed the entire program practically in a few nights.
Thanks to this clerical work, less than three weeks after the declaration of the first covid state of emergency, the Czech Republic had a tool with which it could protect jobs threatened by the state shutdown of the economy.
If we are already fishing in a positive barrel, let’s also add that the necessity to scuttle the rescue program resulted not only from a sudden crisis situation, but also from the unwillingness and inability of previous governments to learn from past crises and give the Czech Republic a standard cursarbeit.
This laudatory introduction is important for the context in which it is good to perceive the current final account for Antivirus issued by the Supreme Audit Office (NAO). He is strict in his report.
He notes that the help provided by Antivirus was too general. The unsophisticated threshold for entering the program “led to the widespread provision of support even to those employers who, at the time of the spread of the covid-19 disease, experienced growth in net turnover, profit and an increase in the number of employees”, the office states. Support for less than ten billion was, according to the controllers, “provided to employers whose main economic activity fell into a sector where there was no drop in production.”
In total, Antivirus helped save jobs at almost 71,000 employers, which amounted to 51 billion crowns in 2020 and 2021. In addition to helping even where it was clearly not needed, the auditors also found that saving jobs did not always work out: “Employers included in the audit sample were provided with contributions to compensate the wages of 47,871 employees in the Antivirus program. A total of 3,363 (7.0%) of these employees, according to the analysis of the SAO, were subsequently kept in the register of job applicants of the Labor Office of the Czech Republic.”
Half a billion was drowned in companies that could not be helped. Almost two hundred employers supported by Antivirus disappeared by the end of the program.
So was Antivirus one big and expensive mess? That would be too harsh a judgment. It was a significant help in the first months of covid. The problem was that he was too good.
The initial success of AntiVirus swayed the Babiš government, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, to the point that they resigned themselves to the development of a system tool for future times. Instead of Antivirus being an acute temporary solution, before it is possible to quickly do proper short work, it became, in minor modifications, a savior of employment even in the second and third covid waves. The government still reached for it at the end of 2021, when Czech car companies were suffering not because of covid, but because of a global shortage of chip supplies.
Although Kurzarbeit was created during Babiš’s government, the process dragged on unacceptably. The first proposal was wrong, it took a long time to adjust in the House of Representatives. Then the notification of the tool at the European Commission got stuck. So it became really usable only in the first half of last year. We are just waiting for a crisis that would test it.
Antivirus was definitely not designed for two years of operation. And it is not surprising that gaps have appeared in the functioning of the rapid crisis tool for such a long time. After all, the control authority also writes: “The emphasis on the speed of support and on the minimum administrative burden had a negative impact on the functioning of the control system.”
The long-term use of Antivirus led to financial leakages, which the SAO writes about, and to the fact that the Czech economy was virtually preserved during the covid period.
It went through unprecedented economic lockdowns without experiencing a noticeable increase in unemployment. Corporate failures were rather individual episodes. On the one hand, this is pleasant and politically advantageous, but on the other hand, it prevents “creative destruction”, which is otherwise an accompanying phenomenon of every crisis and the engine of innovation and adaptation of the economy to new conditions.
Antivirus also continued to increase the pressure in the papyrus that the Czech labor market has turned into in recent years. Instead of the crisis driving employees out of unsuccessful companies and driving them to more successful and innovative ones, Antivirus kept them where they were in March 2020.
Today, the state pays tens of billions to maintain the Czech economy because of energy prices – again including subsidizing companies that show growth in turnover and profit. When the bill for this “rescue” comes, it won’t be any more flattering (or lower) than Antivirus.
And all this only because Czech politicians are afraid to go through the crisis with its negative but also positive consequences. And above all, because the state does not have the tools or institutions to deal with the negative effects of such a crisis on the labor market. This applies especially to labor offices and active employment policy, but also to tools that would motivate companies to take innovative and adaptive (in the case of energy-saving) measures. However, the shelf life of Czech preserves will end at some point. And then it won’t be a pretty sight.