Virology professor: Surprisingly, Estonia has done everything right

Sterile gloves and other protective items at Port of Tallinn.
Sterile gloves and other protective items at Port of Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Ten diagnosed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), 156 people being monitored by health officials, and nearly 900 children being kept home from school in quarantine — this is the current state of affairs when it comes to the novel coronavirus in Estonia. ETV news broadcast "AK. Nädal" looked into the lessons learned and how well Estonia has coped with the current outbreak.

Fear of the novel coronavirus first reached Estonia a month and a half ago, when a hotel employee in Tallinn called paramedics on Chinese hotel guests who had skipped breakfast. While this move was met with public derision, Andres Merits, professor of applied virology at the University of Tartu (TÜ), nonetheless said that it was the right thing to do, as at the time, the epicenter of the outbreak was in China.

"I'd recall that the first SARS outbreak began with a Chinese doctor at a hotel in Hong Kong, who introduced the virus," Merits said. "As a result, it spread to 15 countries. There were over 1,000 cases in total."

By now, however, the latest influx of the disease has come from Italy instead.

"I think that, surprisingly, we have done everything more or less right — we haven't panicked, we haven't fussed too much, we've disseminated perfectly sufficient information, in my opinion," Merits said. "We haven't adopted preventive measures that don't work. My personal opinion is that perhaps we should have and perhaps we should be more involved in diagnosing, and in popularizing the idea that maybe this season, you should act a little less Estonian and not go to work if your throat hurts or you have a cough or cold."

The professor summed up the thermal imaging cameras installed at the Port of Tallinn and Tallinn Airport — they aren't useful, but that they aren't doing any harm either, he said, adding that the same goes for taking the temperature of bus travelers at border checkpoints.

"In my opinion it is high time, perhaps even a little too late already, to invest in actively determining possible cases," he said. "I am relatively certain that each negative diagnosis is also good to know."

Health Board official: Current outbreak not extraordinary

According to Merits, it is catching cases of the disease at the right time that is the best means of managing the outbreak. Martin Kadai, head of emergency services at the Health Board, however, doesn't consider such widespread testing for the virus to be justified.

"Our monitoring systems are very good, which has been proven by the fact that we have found these brought-in cases [of coronavirus disease]," Kadai said. "And what is most important for us? That people are aware, that healthcare providers are also aware, when to suspect having contracted the coronavirus and what to do accordingly."

All samples taken for influenza and upper respiratory illnesses in which initial diagnoses aren't confirmed are likewise being tested for the coronavirus. While the virus is being combated in Asia with the disinfecting of streets and stores, no such measures are planned for Estonia.

"Considering this virus, the disinfecting of streets or other similar measures are actually entirely excessive," Kadai said. "The simplest measures are actually those that people can personally take: wash your hands and avoid contact with ill people."

According to the Health Board official, the current coronavirus outbreak is nothing extraordinary and can be compared to the seasonal flu. Regardless, not a single outbreak has been as extensively addressed at the state level in Estonia as the current one.

"This is certain to happen when some issue ends up catching the attention of the state government," he explained. "This issue definitely currently has the attention of the government, and that is what is resulting in all kinds of additional proposals for the initiating of all kinds of activities. Since the beginning, the Health Board has very clearly tried to maintain proportionality. We are assessing as experts what this illness means, forecasting what it could mean in the worst case scenario, and, accordingly, we're suggesting what would be reasonable measures."

Thus the agency has said from the start that extraordinary measures such as closing the border would not be reasonable in connection with this particular disease.

'Politicians love crises'

Crisis communications expert Ilona Leib said that politicians have always loved crises, as they provide an opportunity for a rise in prominence in the political arena.

"People use various crises to try to demonstrate their courage, preparedness and tenderness in dealing with those who have ended up in a bad situation," Leib said. "We just need to look for signs of political communication in behavior when a minister wants to associate themselves with a crisis that may not even fall under their remit."

According to Leib, the Health Board has done a pretty good job with its awareness efforts, constantly supplying information, being in direct and timely contact with target groups, and providing clear procedures on what to do. She noted that when providing instructions on what to do, the state has been counting on people being reasonable, which raises the question of what kind of country Estonia is.

"Do we trust people to act in a manner that is good for themselves, their families, for the spheres in which we work and live, or are we the type of country which will shut down a city, essentially strip people of their freedom, figuratively speaking checking with armed personnel whether you are in fact staying at home? My basic opinion is that we do actually believe in Estonia's people."

What can one expect in Estonia in the near future? According to Merits, two rough months lie ahead during which the spread of regular viruses will be accompanied by the coronavirus, but whether the latter will end up a seasonal disease or not yet remains to be seen. Under the Health Board's best-case scenario, COVID-19 will not continue to spread locally. Under the worst-case scenario, however, the illness will gain a permanent foothold and spread locally, with individual serious and critical cases.

Which scenario will come true, however, will depend largely on how people behave.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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