The shaping of public perception regarding the coronavirus is a global topic today. Different countries are handling it very differently. Estonia has room for improvement, media expert Raul Rebane finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
Let us look at the time frame. Major and alarming news started spreading all over the world on January 24, only six weeks ago. By then, 26 people had died from and 830 contracted the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China. Those are miniature figures today.
Even so, China made a decision that would be unthinkable here – to build two hospitals with one thousand beds each by February 3. And it did. New and increasingly strict measures were taken from one day to the next. Soon, Hubei Province had been turned into what is basically the world's largest quarantine zone, complete with a curfew and canceled events.
Amazingly, such draconian measures did not cause much alarm here, with the whole thing seen as a domestic problem for China. It is very interesting to analyze the news and statements from the time. One is hard-pressed to find a capable analysis of why China reacted to the virus with such fear and expenses. Meanwhile in Estonia, people made light of news of how two persons from China were tested for the virus as a result of false alarm.
The number of infected people and victims of the virus grew daily, with the disease starting to spread out of China. The statistics received a lukewarm reaction in Estonia, and even when a more anxious note appeared, people were told there is no need to worry as the flu kills far more people. Something we've heard dozens of times since then. We also learned that there is little to fear if one is not old and sick. But what about those who are? All officials, without exception, assured us Estonia was prepared for the virus.
We were told that the media, and especially social media, has overreacted and that things are not as bad as all that by that same media until a few days ago. The same message was conveyed by almost all political talk shows on the radio over the previous weekend.
The icing on the cake was Minister of the Interior Mart Helme's suggestion to fight the virus with the help of goose fat. It is in this that the extent of differences between countries' communication is reflected. Were an Italian or some other country's minister to say something like that right now, people would take bets on how many minutes they had left in office.
The Finns had seven infected people and around 150 in quarantine on Tuesday evening. Their communication, it seems to me, is aimed not at a general analysis and attempts to avoid anxiety at all costs, but providing practical guidelines on various topics.
What it means to be quarantined, how to wash hands, how and where to move, which legal aspects would be good to know, what to do should the virus reach the military. People and companies are issued a lot of guidelines, to the point of whether a person quarantined at home can walk their dog.
There are recommendations for people to have enough food for 72 hours at home should something go wrong etc. There is also a lot of talk about guidelines for local governments, how to maintain information systems etc. It is clear that the threat is not played down.
I believe everyone agrees that this thing is far from over. A Washington Post article from Tuesday writes about how Iran's weak reaction to the virus is a global threat. A number of high-ranking officials have not only come down with the virus, several of them have died. CNN quotes the Iranian parliament's deputy speaker as having suggested 8 percent of the parliament is infected. Those are frightful numbers.
We are increasingly learning how small the world really is, how closely we're connected and how important it is every person conducts themselves responsibly.
My message is that it is time to take this thing more seriously instead of concentrating on garnishing the facts. It would be sensible to boost practical virus information. For example, the last story of the "Aktuaalne kaamera" news program on Tuesday on how to properly wash hands was very good.
It would furthermore be sensible to turn down the level of optimism. For example, news of how the virus' effect on the economy is trifling form earlier this week has now been replaced with a far more realistic and critical outlook.
More vigilance and information won't kill anyone, while washing your hands won't wear them away. No one needs panic, nor is there any reason for it. But an unknown virus needs to be addressed by making greater efforts until such time as it becomes known.
Editor: Marcus Turovski