President Kaljulaid: Government responded to the crisis at the right time

President Kersti Kaljulaid on
President Kersti Kaljulaid on "Esimene stuudio." March 23, 2020. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In an appearance on ETV's "Esimene stuudio" on Monday night, President Kersti Kaljulaid said she believes that the Estonian government has done a good job handling the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic as it responded at the right time. The president was critical, however, of the European Union's actions.

Esimene stuudio: President Kersti Kaljulaid, welcome to the show.

Kersti Kaljulaid: Good evening.

ES: The Health Board said today that the worst-case scenario has not materialized. At the same time, an attentive TV viewer may have noted in the prime minister's address [on Sunday] that we must be prepared for the situation getting worse. What do we actually have to be prepared for then?

KK: The honest response is that we don't exactly know. Everything we see today happened two weeks ago. And everything we see today, it is based on this that we can predict how big the iceberg actually is whose peak is diagnosed cases. And it is based on this that we can now try to predict what will happen two weeks from now.

We can also see whether the disease develops the way it would if we had not introduced these restrictions, or in such a way that demonstrates that these restrictions really work. And that is precisely what is most important right now: to realize the fact that, more than ever before — and I know that this sounds like a cliche — right now, how we get through this crisis and how great our losses are coming out of it really does depend on absolutely every one of us, every person. This is so very important; this cannot possibly be overstated.

Please communicate in person as little as possible. We have to go to the store, but let's keep our distance in the checkout lines too — a meter or meter and a half. We have to go to work, but let's take the necessary precautions. I know there has already been talk today of some people who have been diagnosed and they have still been seen out. And to some extent this is inevitable, because for someone who lives alone to pick up the phone like a young, healthy person, call their local government's social worker and say, 'I don't have anyone to bring me food' — it could mean that after being diagnosed, they go to the grocery store to stock up for themselves for two weeks. None of this can happen. We have to be able to stop this disease.

What does that mean? Mathematically, it means that every ill person must infect less than one person. Less than one.

ES: People are worried on one hand certainly by the unknown, but on the other by isolation — we're just not used to sitting stuck between four walls. How do we survive these difficult days, weeks and months?

KK: Thankfully we're not sitting yet, and not quite stuck between four walls; we are allowed to go outside. But I'm afraid that we need to implement somewhat stricter rules for ourselves, without coercive measures.

Just before this show we heard that the City of Tallinn is closing its playgrounds as well, and for good reason — a lot of children are playing together there. We can see in the courtyards of large houses too that a lot of children are playing together. A child is a child; we have to explain to them every day while we can't do these things right now. But we can take our children and go for a walk. Anyone with a car can go further out from town, not just to a forest park near town. Anyone who doesn't, they need to try to find places with less people. Saturday and Sunday mornings are beautiful; even the forest park in Nõmme wasn't overcrowded in the mornings this past weekend.

Let's keep that distance, and actually people are holding it quite well. When their paths cross, the people of Estonia kindly yield to one another and smile. We are doing this, but we need to do an even better job at it, because what happens next depends on it. This is the only way we can avoid overburdening our medical system.

ES: A citizens' initiative has been launched on Facebook called "Let's halt corona in Estonia," which calls for a quarantine with restrictions on movement. What do you think of that?

KK: Various countries here have implemented restrictions on stores' hours of operation, for example, which means that more people need to go in a shorter amount of time. I don't think that would be a good idea. Our stores are actually open quite late, and we have a lot of space in stores, relatively large stores. Let's take advantage of this.

I think that curfews or implementing such restrictions certainly wouldn't help us here, but I welcome this civic initiative in that these people are calling on others not to chat while out, and not to go out if at all possible. And that I would like to support wholeheartedly.

But look, in democratic countries, the state does not take this responsibility from us. In this crisis as well, just as in everyday life, we have talked a lot about how in crisis we each maintain responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities. And that is precisely how things are today. The state is also leaving us with the responsibility to act reasonably ourselves; it doesn't have to ban and restrict. We ourselves understand that it is more reasonable to order delivery from restaurants than to go dine in, and that it is more reasonable to turn down another street if there are a lot of people here right now. We can do all of this ourselves without having to resort to enforcement mechanisms.

I sincerely hope that we can handle this. This should be the advantage of a democratic system over a totalitarian one where, truly, we know how these — these restrictions were implemented in China. We can handle this within our own system our own way, taking personal responsibility.

ES: In critical times, one must not lose sight of their critical discernment despite everything, and I know that now is not the time to look for someone to blame, but considering how much has been written about our crisis capability or lack thereof, did Estonia in fact actually sleep on the beginning of this crisis?

KK: It didn't. And if we consider when we implemented the emergency situation, I don't think we were too late with that either. It's possible that in retrospect we will assess that it should have been done a bit sooner; we don't know, and no one will ever know. Let's not get caught up in when exactly the right moment would have been, and what would have been right in the past.

It is also true that it likely wasn't the case for us as it is in the healthcare field, that we didn't have enough supplies and equipment to manage some other major crisis. Of course the Health Board won't be able to manage this workload well; not one country in the world maintains a health board that is equipped for the needs of a pandemic at all times. It is clear that we need to find support, help and relief for these people. The emergency call center was naturally immediately swamped with calls as well. The 1247 hotline with its volunteers came to help.

I don't think we have reacted poorly, actually, neither as a society nor with the implementation of the emergency situation.

But what is very important, in the implementation of an emergency situation and during it, is that we do these things together. What I mean here is that even in an emergency situation, where it is really important to move quickly, our Riigikogu must be kept informed and involved. Our Riigikogu has to address longer-term measures. It isn't reasonable for economic measures with which to come out of this crisis are put in place for the next three months or a longer period in the course of the emergency situation. It's reasonable for the parliament to discuss these.

Now and then the parliament needs a better overview of emergency situation measures — based on what considerations they were implemented — and possibly after the fact. This is what discussions in the Constitutional Committee are for. The work of our parliament's committees is organized electronically. It can all be done. It must all be done. What is also very important is that crisis managers involve people from the opposition in the resolution of the crisis. One must be supportive, but in order to be constructive, in order to be supportive, you must be informed and involved. And naturally, criticism always has its place; there is no getting around that.

At the sametime, we have to remember that if we are criticizing front-line workers today — and that is what a lot of people are saying on the grassroots level, that they are getting scolded a great deal as they do this difficult work, because they don't have the answers — but no one has the answers right now. Please, let's not do this to these people. Please, let's take care of these people.

President Kersti Kaljulaid on "Esimene stuudio." March 23, 2020. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

ES: One of the opposition's biggest stated concerns is that Stenbock House is taking on a lot of power during the emergency situation and perhaps, once this is all over, it won't want to relinquish it anymore. Do you see any danger of this happening?

KK: Parliament is the body in this country — we have a parliamentary state; the Constitution of Estonia does not become invalid in an emergency situation — the one that must stand to ensure that all of our freedoms are restored when this emergency situation comes to an end. This is explicitly their job. Of course, other institutions will be involved with this as well — the chancellor of justice, me, and certainly the Supreme Court of Estonia if necessary.

I think that once this emergency situation is over at one point, and the sun is back out again, then all of these measures must be considered and discussed, because it is also preedent. We have never had an emergency situation before. All of this will remain as precedent for the future; things were done this way last time. We know how crucial that first time is — the establishment of precedent. This needs to be going on constantly, in parallel, and later it needs to undergo further analysis once again. We will all do this together, and in order to ensure that Estonia acts as a parliamentary republic during every day, every stage of this crisis.

ES: In other words, this is largely up to MPs' own actions, consciences and courage not to remain bystanders as well?

KK: Precisely. And in finding working methods. Yes, our laws are relatively explicit regarding how work in the Riigikogu should be conducted — it may be even unexpectedly presence-centered for an e-state, but perhaps we should consider what this presence means. We likely need that an MP is present enough that we know that it is really the and that they are acting based on their own free will. This is possible to arrange with modern means. We heard from Latvia [on Sunday] that the Latvian president believes that Latvia, which is not an e-state like Estonia, can manage to arrange the work of its parliament. And we have also managed to arrange the work of our parliament at the committee level. All of this is up to the parliament itself.

ES: In other words, translating this for our viewers, a suspected infection will not take away an MP's vote in the Board of the Riigikogu elections.

KK: It cannot in any case, but thankfully a solution was found for this.

ES: So they can vote outside of the [Riigikogu] building if necessary. We also need to talk about testing. This is actually one issue that affects people the most. And it must be said that messages have been conflicting. First we're not testing because we allegedly don't need to, and then it turns out that we don't have the tests. Could this have been handled better?

KK: First of all, we received 80,000 new tests this morning. We had reserves of 20,000 tests. As of today we are much better stocked with tests. But if we consider that this situation may last for a long time, then if we figure on up to 1,000 tests per day, as is currently being said, then this current stock of tests should be sufficient for us. But we didn't have such a supply of tests yet yesterday. Things change very quickly.

It was likewise pretty clear that initially, when individual cases were coming in, they attempted to test as many people as possible that they had come into contact with that developed fevers and other symptoms. Then we ended up in a situation where we couldn't be sure that a new shipment of tests would come in. We had to reduce the number of tests, although we would have wanted to test more just then, when it was entirely justified academically. The WHO has said to test a lot, although the WHO also initially said test, test, test, and is now saying consider whether you have enough materials and personal protective equipment (PPEs).

It's not so simple. And no doubt if you know all the facts and also what lies ahead the day after tomorrow, things could have been done better. But I'd still like to say that the Estonian state is testing a great deal per capita, and largely thanks to the fact that we also have Synlab, which literally has a production line for this testing. Other labs have also been very good and are testing, but moreso using manual methods.

ES: How has the government managed the crisis?

KK: I believe that the government has managed very well in that they have responded in time. The social affairs minister is prepared to endlessly explain this situation and his forecasts to us. The ministers have also been open to admitting that, for example, [Minister of Public Administration] Jaak Aab told us what efforts must be made in order to get PPEs. A large part of what went wrong in China was related to the fact that they weren't candid. The government has definitely been candid, and that has been very positive.

Now, regarding what I have heard that the Riigikogu actually feels as though it has not been involved enough — I also spoke with parliamentary group leaders, and it was clear there — then I believe that more attention should be paid to this now that conditions are more or less in place. Perhaps some things should be changed.

Of course somewhere in the background is a constant struggle for getting masks and gowns. That is all going on, but even so, this inclusion, inclusion, inclusion is perhaps the area where we've fallen a little short right now.

President Kersti Kaljulaid on "Esimene stuudio." March 23, 2020. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

ES: We should also say a few words about Estonia's biggest island, which is effectively in isolation. Does your heart break for Saaremaa islanders?

KK: Just as yours does.

ES: As a Saaremaa islander and Estonian, it can't not.

KK: Yes, of course. I'd very much like to thank the staff at Kuressaare Hospital. I know that they are having a very difficult time. I can't imagine where we could find them a significant amount of reinforcements; they have been looking for them. I hope they find them too. And I'd love to go myself to help with something more than just a phone call, but I don't have the resources to do so. But I want to say that I am very, very grateful for the staff at Kuressaare Hospital.

I have also spoken with [Saaremaa Municipal Mayor] Madis Kallas about how to ensure that single elderly people receive their food and supplies from the pharmacy. I have spoken about the same with [Hiiumaa Municipal Council Chairman] Aivar Viidik in Hiiumaa, and with other towns and regions. They are all working hard, just as Saaremaa islanders are. Saaremaa islanders are working hard in a much more difficult situation right now. What happened there is what likely happened in Italy — the virus was able to spread before we could even suspect that it was spreading among us.

ES: Let's talk about economic measures. As one step, the government is stopping payments into the second pension pillar. Is this a reasonable decision?

KK: This has been justified with the same decision being made during the previous economic crisis. In the previous economic crisis, we had one critical goal — Estonia wanted to join the euro area, and we had long been facing the issue that while our budget remained well balanced and our currency was stable, we couldn't fulfill the third condition — the inflation condition. In order to join the euro area and control inflation, in that crisis we actually balanced the budget, of course, but on the other hand we also tried using other measures to suppress what is called an automatic stabilizer — do as little as possible for inflation to drop as much as possible so that we could join the euro area, as it was clear that once the economy recovered, price and wage convergence with Europe would continue.

It actually wasn't wrong in that crisis to halt payments into the second pension pillar — it was reasonable at the time, considering the budget needed to be balanced — but the resulting side effects, which undoubtedly affected people with smaller incomes more, certainly affected the well-being of the people of Estonia, and they certainly played a role in the later transformation of our political landscape.

I suppose in every crisis, some things are done well and some things are done badly. Right now we have no reason [to do this], and the government has clearly said that budgetary balance is not the goal. In this case I must agree with Madis Müller, governor of the Bank of Estonia — I don't understand why we're doing this.

ES: You know that there are those who will say that now is not the time to argue and that also say that the president's decision not to promulgate the second pillar reform for a second time was wrong and interference in politics.

KK: The Constitution was in force prior to the crisis, is in force during the crisis, and will remain in force after the crisis. We have talked a great deal about this here today. Not one of the arguments I cited in refusing to promulgate this law the first time that the Riigikogu had passed it fell away due to the fact that the Riigikogu didn't change the law. Naturally the only conceivable step was to take the law to the Supreme Court. And not in order to win or to lose, but so that we could gain clarity on such a crucial issue, regarding which there are very many different opinions, in which no one doubts the government's right to shape social policy, but the question is whether this reshaping of social policy might infringe too much on some sort of other constitutional rights. As I cited in my application to the Supreme Court, as many jurists have cited, it would be best if the Supreme Court were to analyze this.

ES: As we rarely see the president in this studio, then I have to ask everything at once. As we know, on April 1, the salaries of high-ranking state officials, including that of the president, will be increasing. What does your sense of justice have to say about this during these difficult times, and what will you be doing?

KK: I will be donating the difference each month to someone helping relieve the impact of this crisis on our society. This month I supported Saaremaa islanders' cooperation with the nonprofit Kadunud. Next month we'll see, and so on. Naturally I don't think this raise is suitable right now, but we all know that it's the law. So it went, and we will seek measures to ensure that it serves a purpose.

ES: Salary numbers are now out of the way. For nearly a week, Estonia's political landscape underwent a sort of fright phase thanks to the crisis, but now things are back to normal, and the old rhetoric is back. How should this whole picture be patched up again?

KK: Once again, in the current situation, no one's steps are or can be unjustified. And if one is seeking justifications and asking for explanations, then that is a reasonable request. And the more we involve all layers of society, first and foremost in parliament, parliamentary groups, including the opposition, the more sure we can be that we have a greater consensus regarding the implementation of these measures, which of course is very important.

Currently, there is a great public consensus that these measures are right, but at some point we will certainly grow tired of this, especially if these measures — paradoxically — provide results relatively quickly, that we can see that we are capable of controlling — I very much hope that we are capable of controlling — first and foremost the number of infected persons as a result. That we can control the number of people ending up in intensive care, and that is now the challenge — we don't want to end up in a situation where we don't have enough beds in intensive care. If we can successfully flatten the curve and flatten the increase in the number of cases, people will soon start to ask for how much longer, and when can we move on from this situation.

In order for all of these decisions to work this way, in order to keep all of society involved, more explanations are inevitably needed. And in order to generate more explanations, these questions must be asked. This is legal and this must be done; it isn't anti-state activity to ask why do things this way if they could be done another way as well.

ES: As I have asked [Prime Minister] Jüri Ratas this question several times, I now have the extraordinary opportunity to ask the other side — how are your relations really with the prime minister?

KK: They are businesslike. If needed, then we work together, call, talk, and as you know, a president and prime minister always have things they need to discuss. This has been the case during this crisis as well, and I promise that I will certainly continue this cooperation. I am fully convinced that the prime minister and other ministers will do the same.

Perhaps too little attention is paid to simple good and to where we have always frequently seen eye to eye. If we consider Jüri Ratas' or my political views, we're both staunch supporters of the EU, and very European-minded. We also naturally see Estonia's role in NATO, and we see that Estonia needs to contribute to, not be consumers of, security. We both understand that the state budget generally has limits, although of course different rules apply in crisis situations. Our political views are actually very similar.

ES: Former vice-president of the European Commission Siim Kallas is very critical of the EU's behavior in this crisis. Are you just as critical?

KK: I am also critical because the EU has actually failed in its primary function, which is to ensure the functioning of a single market. The primary function of the EU is that we are a common economic space, and we have the free movement of labor, goods, services and capital. There are clearly issues with at least three of these today. With that, we can say that, indeed, the EU, meaning all of us ourselves — as we ourselves are the EU — have not collectively managed with ensuring this. And sorting this out will certainly take time, but this must be addressed, and we should begin by acknowledging this.

It isn't too important whether a joint procurement is organized and what its results are and whether these supplies arrive in April or May. This is aid, and we are grateful that the Commission is doing this, but this is not their principal activity. Their principal activity is to implement those things that we have agreed upon ourselves. And I believe that we need to steadfastly speak with our partners, allies, neighbors as well as the European Commission regarding how to ensure that goods don't get stuck.

If we look, many countries still accept the rule that goods must be able to move freely across borders and are doing so. Germany, for example, has been very cooperative. When we sent a ship, Germany didn't quarantine the crew, but rather let people board and let the ship return home. This ship route can continue working if it's needed to organize cargo transport. I spoke with President Steinmeier about how there is no doubt that this is the case.

Very frequent communication to ensure that the current situation doesn't turn into a long-term wound is very important, and that is also one reason why I have been consistently communicating with the presidents of our neighboring countries as well as more distant countries, including for example Italian president Mattarella. In order to say that the people of Italy are also in our thoughts. In early March, we even sent protective masks there. There is a protective mask producer in Estonia. Low capacity, but they filled their order.

And so in terms of EU solidarity, many people have a lot of questions today. The European Commission has not been successful today in fulfilling their primary function. But I hope that these things all get figured out, but only all together. Once again, the EU is not something in itself; it is us, a union of nation states.

ES: We may not be able to discuss this at length, but I won't ask whether you are disappointed in Poland's actions, but rather how disappointed are you?

KK: Enough to speak to the Polish president between 10 p.m. and midnight and then continue speaking to him in the morning. I was very sad that such a situation arose. I hope that, going forward, we are capable of talking these situations out too. I will certainly continue to speak with my colleagues so that we might be better prepared next time.

ES: Coming back home, I've noticed in recent days that Estonians really are amazing. Have you happened to catch any e-concerts?

KK: Yes, I have — Orelipoiss and Duo Ruut. When I go home today, I'll see if there are any more concerts. Perhaps some can be watched after the fact.

And I noticed that had marked down a few trails. One unfortunately happened to be in a very popular spot — Keila-Joa, where people have been asked not to go over the weekend, but it's possible to go during the week and do this trail without having to come in contact with anything or anyone.

These things are going on. It's important that they are, because although we have to maintain physical distance from one another, then we could actually hold close to one another. Watching the Orelipoiss concert from my home, with my family, I felt like this was an enjoyable event all together; we were all together. Maybe it was just one big rose-colored bubble, but it was worth creating. And it is incredibly important that we are there for one another. Once again, that we are there for front-line workers. The City of Tartu has established a 24-hour daycare where police officers and doctors can take their children.

Let's help all of those people that are on the front lines today. We can do that. And even if things are difficult, let's try to say thank you. And if things are very difficult and you can't even manage that, then at least let's not say anything negative. And I hope that these cultural events which are being provided to comfort us somewhat in the evenings help keep spirits high.

President Kersti Kaljulaid on "Esimene stuudio." March 23, 2020. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

ES: We should say something supportive to those parents who over the past week have frantically tried to download some kind of apps and, in a sweat, have tried to learn together with their little one. Perhaps we weren't quite ready for distance learning?

KK: Can one really be ready? And that actually shows us how important it is that we come together and are in one place. This crisis will pass at some point. Until then, yes, we will need a great deal of patience. I myself, who doesn't play a single instrument, have to curate violin and piano lessons at home right now.

ES: How is that going?

KK: I don't know anything about it. It all sounds pretty good to me, if the song isn't broken off outright.

But this is difficult for all parents. I am very glad that people launched the initiative of a computer for every child, because if you have three kids and you yourself also have to work, and you only have this one piece of tech with which to do it all, then that is difficult.

But it's lovely sometimes too. This morning, my youngest child came in and said, "Mommy, please don't bother me for the next two hours, I have two video classes in a row," and decisively shut the door. So we're slowly adjusting. Of course, they are adjusting faster than we are.

ES: So, to somehow sum up this conversation, we should actually use this crisis as an opportunity, so that it isn't just things in the economy that are rearranged, or new supply chains established, but that we should also look to our own relationships and values? Now, when there is more time?

KK: I am also actually continuing to do my everyday work, but since you can't take fun pictures of being among the people as it's all being done via videoconferencing, then perhaps there has been less talk of it too. But I have also met with the chairwoman of the Estonian Food Industry Association, and I am videoconferencing with all the major food producers this week. Today I spoke with the Estonian Traders Association.

We all see that this will affect our society for a longer period of time. Traders, for example, all agree that once people have started to order more, they may not all return to the store. So naturally, let's say our children won't always remain studying at home, but perhaps children in Estonia will be more free in the future to take a break together with their parents, go somewhere else, rely on distance learning for a month, in an individual way, and are more free than in some other country perhaps, where they weren't as prepared for this.

Our teachers have been very good. Some parents have said that perhaps even too good, that they gave students quite a lot to do during the first week. I suppose everything will fall into place, and we will learn a great deal, and much of it will stay with us in the future. A great deal of our economy and our lives are being reshaped, and new winners will arise. Unfortunately there are a lot of people watching today, and I am very glad that we have fast measures to offer them.

I hope that the workforce adapts quickly too, that who has been left jobless somewhere, while at the same time we have establishments that have now gone without foreign labor and who desperately need food producers right now, and plenty of other factories still working, whose supply chains have not broken. I hope that we learn to be even more flexible and faster. We are as a small society anyway.

And first and foremost, that we all once again comprehend all of this — that in every situation, including in a crisis situation, everything depends on every one of us. And these aren't just hollow words — we are all responsible for things going well for us. We will be good, we will implement these restrictions, let's not move too close together, let's skip group exercises outside, and ask that our children play with the family.

This is the only thing that will carry us forward in this situation, in addition to the smart work and good decisions by our decision-makers, who must involve all dissenters as well as much as possible. Then we will come out of this crisis as quickly as possible and as strong as possible, and then we can start building up our economy again into a better state. Together with our European partners, because as a small, open economy, we will need that large market. We must think about all of this every day right now. There is time to think, as you said.

ES: Thank you. That thought is the perfect way to conclude our interview. I thank you for this meeting, and strength to us all.

KK: Thank you.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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