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by Euro Reporter
2013-01-13 10:04:20
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A leading presidential candidate has a full-face tattoo

File this under, “Things that could never happen in America.” That man is Vladimir Franz, a Czech composer who is tattooed from head — and face — to toe, and he’s third in the polls in the Czech Republic’s presidential election, which is going on Friday and Saturday. This is the first time Czechs will directly elect a president — a mainly ceremonial position because the prime minister largely runs the country. Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic has had two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, and both were elected by Parliament. But both of those elections were plagued by charges of corruption, so the legislature handed over the vote to the general public. Klaus, the incumbent, called the direct elections “a fatal mistake” because someone like Franz might succeed him.

Franz, a composer and 53-year-old professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, education and morality, gathering 88,000 signatures in a petition for his candidacy in 2012. The Guardian reports that his tattoos don’t seem to bother most Czechs, especially the youth: “He has proved particularly popular with young voters – and those not yet eligible to cast a ballot. In a mock presidential election at 441 high schools across the country a month before the vote, Franz won by a landslide, winning more than 40% of the approximately 60,000 votes cast.”

In a recent profile with British Channel 4 news, Franz waxed philosophically about his colourful appearance: “Tattoos are an expression of free will, which do not interfere with the freedom of others,” he said. To have his own aesthetic view of the world is the right of every free individual. “To me, it is also an expression of the permanent decision to stand up for my choices, good and bad. My tattoo is the result of a long-term sophisticated conception, not a sudden movement of the mind. To rate a human being only according to appearance – no matter if it was given by nature or voluntarily by himself – is a sign of superficiality and arrogance at the same time.” Czech presidents represent the Czech Republic abroad and appoint central bankers and judges. Former Prime ministers Milos Zeman and Jan Fischer are the favourites in this campaign, according to polls. If no candidate wins the majority, as is likely, the two top performers will face a runoff later this month. “I don’t know if I’ll make the second round, but the most important thing is that the nation is waking up,” Franz said after casting his ballot in Prague on Friday.


Czech coalition wants to stay intact, row unresolved

The Czech Republic's governing coalition wants to continue in its current form but has not yet resolved a dispute over a threat from the junior ruling LIDEM party to quit, coalition officials said on Tuesday. Persistent infighting among the three parties in Prime Minister Petr Necas's administration has cut its support to just 98 of parliament's 200 seats. It has managed to push through crucial votes with the help of a handful of independent lawmakers but the potential departure of LIDEM could cause it to collapse only halfway through its four-year term.

LIDEM Chief Karolina Peake said last month ministers from its small, centrist party would resign on January 10 after Necas sacked her as defence minister only days after her appointment. But she signalled earlier this month that the party, whose popularity is close to zero in opinion polls, may back off its threat to quit, and coalition party officials said on Tuesday they wanted LIDEM to stay in the government. "We have agreed on behalf of the coalition parties that we want to continue in the present coalition project," Martin Kuba, vice-chairman of Necas's Civic Democrats, told a news conference following a meeting of coalition officials.

LIDEM vice Chairwoman Dagmar Navratilova said the threat of resignation remained open but negotiations were continuing. She added the party's decision should be clear later on Tuesday. Necas and his ruling partners started their term in 2010 with a strong majority, raising hopes of sweeping economic reforms. But its parliamentary numbers have shrunk after a series of coalition rifts, a situation exacerbated by a recession that has eroded the ruling parties' popularity. The government has raised taxes and cut welfare spending to slash a budget deficit that swelled in 2009 when the global economic crisis hit the Czechs' export-dependent economy.


The hospital from where you don’t return

In the mountains of Bohemia, near the Polish border, lies a small hospital – the only one of its kind in Europe: The Biological Defence Centre in Těchonín is designed to treat the poor unfortunates who contract the world's most dangerous viruses or fall victim to a biological terrorist attack. There once was a young Czech solder – let’s call him Jiří – who spent a year in the Congo on a tour of duty. In the town where he was serving, there was an outbreak of Ebola. The likelihood that he would contract this almost invariably deadly disease, which causes a person to bleed to death from inside, was very high. So when he got a nosebleed one day he was certainly scared. However, he knew that he must not endanger his family or anyone else. When he returned to the Czech Republic, the army’s medical unit immediately sent him into quarantine at the Biological Defence Centre in Těchonín.

This is a hospital from where really sick patients almost never return. It’s a military hospital, hidden away in the Orlické Mountains. It is the only facility of its kind in Europe. And it’s the only hospital in the Czech Republic whose priority is less treating patients as much as protecting the population who live beyond the barbed wire. As the number of BIOHAZARD! Warning signs reveal, it’s a hospital for isolating patients with highly contagious diseases and also serves as a kind of back-up hospital in the event of terrorist attacks using biological weapons such as anthrax or SARS.

There is something else exceptional about it: it has almost no patients. Jiří was its only patient, not counting soldiers returning from foreign missions who always have to spend 24 hours in quarantine here. Every year there are around 1,000 of them. Why do almost all the civilians returning from areas where dengue fever is raging or Ebola not head here? Because no one in the Czech Republic has looked into this kind of protection for civilian employees. Neither does our own army know what to do with this exceptional hospital. Jiří was lucky. Despite fears he had contracted Ebola, a two-week quarantine showed that there was no infection and he was allowed to go home. Jiří is one of the few people who know what it’s like inside a state-of-the-art facility. Almost everything here is made of stainless steel, and patients are examined by doctors wearing suits with their own air supply. Doors open with soft clicks, as all the rooms are at less than atmospheric pressure. Even though patients are close by, behind triple-glazed glass, it takes a few minutes for any of the doctors to reach them. There is no doors directly connecting doctor with patient. That’s intentional.

Even if the patient is choking, the staff must first change into the spacesuits and pass through the security zone. It takes about three minutes to reach a patient. Ward rounds are done here using microphones inside the spacesuits – what the doctor says is entered into a computer by his colleague standing on the other side of the triple-glazed windows. Almost all the devices are disposable, including the expensive monitors. To disinfect them after contact with a patient that really did have Ebola would be unrealistic. Anyone who arrives here as a patient lives in a kind of aquarium with its own air and water and a closed waste-handling system. Unlike other hospitals, this one is unlikely to operate on patients, even if it does have an operating hall. Provisions for autopsies, though, have certainly been made. The post-mortem room with its laboratory is right next to the patients’ ward. The spread of deadly infectious diseases is often swift and it’s important to identify the type of contagion as soon as possible in order to protect others.

The hospital has its own petrol station, heliport, a mobile hospital for infectious diseases with its own laboratory, and sewage treatment including a fishpond into which the cleaned water is drained and where fish sensitive to contamination are monitored to ensure the water truly is safe. One of the hospital’s rooms is full of mice. Here, in collaboration with a team formed under the late Professor Antonín Holý, research is carried out on some viruses, such as the E. coli virus that sparked a diarrhoea epidemic across Europe last summer that left dozens of people dead. Research is a tradition here, after all: it was in Těchonín that a unique bank of viruses was kept until 1992, and was later destroyed by order of the Minister of Defence. Today microbiologists have to buy these expensive microbes, such as the diarrhoeal E. coli, from abroad. The Centre for Biological Control has three tasks: the first is isolation and quarantine, for just such cases like Jiří. The second is research, and the third is educational.

The hospital functions as a training site where doctors and lab workers carry out tests under biological hazard conditions. They learn what to watch out for and how, for example, to transport patients in body isolation units without endangering themselves or their surroundings. “We work with the civilian system. Doctors from infectious disease clinics, emergency medicine specialists, and even medical students come here,” says Petr Navrátil, the Czech Army’s chief public health officer. And of course, soldiers themselves train here in what to do in the event of a biological threat to the population. It’s called disaster medicine. The danger of bioterrorism remains: biological weapons are cheap to develop, and they are effective. However, the future of the Centre for Biological Protection in Těchonín is unclear, and everything points to its closure. “The decision has not been made, but in view of the cuts to the Defence Ministry budget, how to keep it running is a very difficult question,” says Defence Ministry spokesman Jan Pejšek. At a time when the Army is looking intently at every crown spent, to make sure there is enough for uniforms and petrol, it is hard to justify pouring money into the Centre.

In short, we have a unique facility, which cost an awful lot of money, but which can essentially only be used when some nightmarish infectious disease breaks out. Closing it would mean that we have thrown away 2bn crowns (€80m). If we keep it, it will cost a minimum of 100m crowns (4m) a year just to keep the hospital running. Preserving the whole facility is impossible; which ultimately means it is doomed, as aging equipment will not be replaced – and certainly not in the middle of an emergency, just when we need it. What about selling it? There’s no buyer. The army has approached the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health and the Interior, and has highlighted the importance of Těchonín for the security system of the state to the State Office for Nuclear Safety and the Academy of Sciences and all the other institutions – but none want to contribute to the cost of running it. The search has also spread beyond the Czech Republic’s borders. “Negotiations have been held with the World Health Organisation, the EU Council, the European Commission, the European External Action Service, and bilateral talks have been held with several countries within NATO (e.g. the UK) and even outside it (Serbia). No agreement has been reached, though,” shrugs the spokesman.

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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-13 14:06:59
The story of tattooed Czeck composer Vladimir Franz could have fit quite well under today’s category of the bizarre. It is indeed philosophically bizarre that while the human body is continually changing and is a whole new body with new cells every seven years, the tattoos remain unchanged. Which should astonish us more? And what exactly is the message of this medium? Perhaps that one’s choices are always irrevocable and deterministic despite the claim to free will? That one expresses both free will and determinism via tattoos? But is that not a violation of the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction: a thing cannot be and not be at the same time? Or is it a quantum mechanics principle?

Pirandello used to explain his drama philosophy by pointing out that after a while, after wearing one's mask for a long time, one becomes one’s mask understood as the way one presents oneself to the world. I suppose one becomes one’s tattoos. The problem is that sometimes, because of some internal metamorphosis, even after “a long term sophisticated conception,” one may wish to change one’s appearance to make it more authentic, less of a mask and more consonant with one’s revised conception of oneself. Or have we given up on the Socratic quest for self-knowledge? Indeed Michelangelo would have been branded as superficial and arrogant too had he decided to paint the Sistine Chapel on his own body. On seeing Vladimir Franz walking about with his tattoos he would have probably quipped: ancora imparo [I am still learning] but I doubt he would have decided to paint his own body.

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