Opinion: Government behaving responsibly over coronavirus

Allar Jõks and Piret Schasmin Source: Sorainen

The Estonian government has been accused of inciting panic as well as being inactive, in the wake of the recent spread of COVID-19 coronavirus cases in the country. However, the government's behavior to date has been balanced, and there is no reason for panic, write lawyers Allar Jõks and Piret Schasmin. At the same time, the law does not allow for mandatory quarantining in any case.

Reading the various news portals in Estonia, one could be forgiven for thinking that Estonia was in an unusually special situation. The number of dramatic stories has already surpassed those last autumn (when stories regarding comments made by interior minister Mart Helme dominated the headlines for a time-ed.)

The figure of coronavirus victims in the country continues to grow, standing at 10 at the time of writing; the Italian government closed all its schools and universities two days ago, with several regions in the north of the country establishing quarantine conditions.

Some days ago, before Estonia experienced its first confirmed case, Martin Kadai, head of the emergency department at the Health Board (Terviseamet) said that unlike Italy, Estonia would not be doing the same.

However, what quarantine means in legal terms and in what cases it can be imposed in Estonia has so far been overlooked.

Pursuant to the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (hereinafter NETS), quarantine is a restriction on the movement of people, goods, vehicles and services, the purpose of which is to prevent the spread of a particularly dangerous communicable disease beyond its current the outbreak. A distinction must be made between this and "voluntary quarantine", when people impose restrictions on movement themselves.

NETS only allows local government to impose quarantine following a proposal from the Health Board in the case of a particularly serious infectious disease. Particularly dangerous infectious diseases in the understanding of NETS include cholera, yellow fever and tuberculosis, meaning coronavirus does not constitute a particularly dangerous infectious disease.

Does this mean that the country will experience a short battle with the virus, after which the Riigikogu should change the law and redefine coronavirus as a particularly dangerous infectious disease?

No it does not, because under NETS, a local authority may, again on a proposal from the Health Board, temporarily close schools, childcare and welfare facilities, requiring them to be disinfected, fumigated in the case of insectoid pests, or otherwise cleaned, and instigate public health surveys.

The head of a childcare or welfare institution may also, on his or her own initiative, temporarily close an institution they manage, in coordination with the Health Service regional office.

If coronara virus begins to endanger the lives and health of large numbers of people, the government may also declare a state of emergency and, if necessary, impose a ban on certain areas, or restrict freedom of movement.

However, such intense restrictions on fundamental rights could apply only in exceptional circumstances, if the spread of the virus in Estonia was already so widespread. 

We have to agree with Ants Nõmper, who wrote in Postimees on March 5 that the current situation in Estonia does not justify declaring a state of emergency.

The Estonian government has been accused of inciting panic and inaction. In light of the above, the behavior of the government to date can be considered balanced, and there is no reason for panic. At the moment, it really seems that "the corona virus is infecting Estonia the most via social media," as [ERR journalist] Marju Himma wrote.

Allar Jõks is a partner at Sorainen law firm, and a former Chancellor of Justice. Piret Schasmin is a lawyer at Sorainen.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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