The nature of restrictions can be altered during the emergency situation, including by relaxing them. If people are responsible, avoid infection and infecting others, the time for returning to something that resembles normalcy will soon arrive, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise writes.
Emergencies tend to happen from time to time, whether in the form of extensive power outages, bush fires or in this case, a dangerous and highly infectious virus. Usually, ordinary crisis management is enough to overcome them, while an emergency situation needs to be declared if it is not.
An emergency situation needs to be declared only if necessary and maintained only as long as necessary – there is no reason to fear it or attribute to it mystical powers.
A nationwide emergency situation is justified as long as general restrictions on movement and emergency leadership are needed. The head of the emergency situation can give immediate orders where necessary, bypassing normal work division and authority. The PM and government effectively take control of all relevant agencies, with general bans and obligations implemented in a way that would be inadmissible under normal circumstances.
Has Estonia opted for appropriate restrictions for containing the coronavirus crisis? Debates are definitely possible here, especially in crystal clear hindsight.
It seems today that the virus has been kept in check over what has now been nearly six weeks. We will never know what kind of results a more lenient approach would have yielded, for example, if shopping malls and schools would have remained open or if the residents of Hiiumaa would not have been all but isolated on their island.
No mathematical model is accurate enough to calculate the behavior of an entire society and its effect. Estonia's low population density, our behavior and communication habits and the level of discipline and caution in society make it impossible to draw single-valued conclusions based on the experience of other countries.
Main question when deciding the duration of the emergency situation
What's certain is that there were sufficient grounds for an emergency situation late on March 12 – the need for both restrictions on movement and isolation of infected people as well as centralized management from Stenbock House. We do not know of clearly excessive restrictions at this time, while general orders by the head of the emergency situation can be challenged in administrative court as it needs to be in the conditions of the rule of law.
The matter at the heart of deciding the duration of the emergency situation is how long we need the general restriction on movement, school and work limitations and the ban on public sporting events, fairs and gatherings managed from Stenbock House – restrictions that help us avoid a large part of the population getting sick at the same time and treatment disruptions and deaths that would be caused by hospitals being overwhelmed.
Debates occasionally reflect aspirations to get rid of the virus altogether. While that would be nice, experts say it is objectively impossible (unless the virus mutates and becomes harmless to humans).
The coronavirus has spread all over the world, borders will not remain closed forever and even if some regions manage to eradicate the virus temporarily by employing inhuman methods, it will soon return and will probably keep returning even after a vaccine and treatment become available.
Therefore, the relevant question is how to avoid rapid and uncontrollable infection. To achieve the goal of avoiding hospitals being overwhelmed, the emergency situation is needed until a stable downtrend in the number of people who need to be hospitalized has been achieved.
The severity of restrictions can be changed during an emergency situation, including by relaxing them. If people are responsible, avoid infection and infecting others, the time for returning to something that resembles normalcy will soon arrive.
What will happen after the emergency situation?
The virus will very likely not disappear, nor will corresponding urgency. There is a growing mood according to which agencies and local governments are helpless when it comes to containing its spread. It is an extremely serious concern.
In addition to the number of people hospitalized, ending of the emergency situation depends largely on whether we can be sure infected people and their loved ones – and there will be more – will be ordered to isolate, sporting events or concerts banned if and where necessary and schools, shops or bars closed. Quickly and properly.
Believing that every person crossing the border while exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 needs to be isolated or every contagious playground closed by the PM in person is not sensible. In such cases, immediate and effective reaction is up to appropriate public servants. The law provides the necessary powers, while they need to be communicated and practiced.
Provisions can also be made clearer on the level of legislative drafting. Anyway, we cannot require the PM to continue doing the work of officials indefinitely. It is neither objectively possible nor normal.
It is to be hoped that polite behavior will continue to include staying indoors when sick and refraining from coughing without covering one's mouth when inside even when healthy. Keeping one's distance from other people during the virus season will perhaps also remain the norm. Such an attitude would spare lives, improve public health and help save work and school hours and treatment money.
Editor: Marcus Turovski