It has been over a month since the emergency situation was declared in Estonia, writes Reform Party MP Keit Pentus-Rosimannus. The world has been put on pause, with plenty of reasons to think how fragile the functioning of the world really is. How interconnected it is. After a month full of immediate reactions, a broader picture will start to be framed. Here are five thoughts of mine which I wrote down after one of those sleepless nights. Let me lay them out for you, in no particular order.
1. The troubadours of autocratic leadership have tended to grasp at the trump cards in this pandemic. The trends of the spread of coronavirus have not tended to favor democracies. The flagships of western democracy – the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland (not to mention Italy or Spain) have had to give their consideration to accustomed freedoms, delicate feelings of their citizens, and election cycles.
As the sad statistics of those infected and those who have died show, the national level response in these democracies clearly came late. States which applied rapid and strong responses, using mass testing plus quarantine obligations seem to be doing relatively better.
I do agree with [Israeli historian and professor] Yuval Harari – we need to be careful and cautious that governments will not use the emergency situation constraints to introduce permanent limitations on freedoms. But an even better medicine against autocratic tendencies would be for democracies to be able to prove with proper, real-life responses, that democracies can be at least as effective in crisis. Democracy cannot or should not not be a synonym for incapacity.
2. The EU was slow at the beginning of the crisis, so instead a "one for all and all for one" mentality, an "everyone for themselves" philosophy prevailed. Closing up one's doors and drawing thick curtains were the first intuitive response of many member states.
There were few examples acting in the true spirit of Europe in the beginning of crisis – Germany making their own intensive care capabilities available for critically ill patients from Italy and France; France donating masks and protective suits to Italy; Romania and Poland sending their doctors and nurses to Bergamo and Brescia; Austria treating intensive care patients from Italy and France in their hospitals.
Now, as the initial shock is over, the picture is improving. Slowly, but it is improving.
One of the lessons of the ongoing crisis has already been that the EU needs to upgrade its capabilities to produce critical supplies. How can we have any serious debate on harnessing China and having a joint EU-China strategy, when the major supplier of protective equipment is China?
The best working strategy would be being capable of solving our problems ourselves. Estonia cannot be passive in that regard. We all need to cooperate to prove that globalization does not mean only the transportation connections which eased the spread of the virus. We need to cooperate, to share our lessons and experiences from digital solutions and to work hard to have an efficient EU. After all, there is no such thing as an abstract, anonymous "EU". There are member states that make up this union. Nobody else is to blame if we are not happy with what we see in the mirror.
3. It is still a bit unclear what and how many lessons we have taken from the last economic crisis. If and how much money is given directly to people, or are middlemen again at the center of the government responses? How are these middlemen going to act? Like little planned economies on repeat play? Major central banks seem to believe again that the best band-aid for the virus wound is a freshly printed dollar. Avoiding the freeze on the money circulation is of course a legitimate goal. It looks like at least few states have listened the experts' suggestions to give money directly to people, not to the banks, or to the middlemen. This would increase the likelihood that the consumers themselves, by their choices, will filter out weaker businesses, and the result of the crisis will be a stronger, healthier economy.
In Estonia, the government chooses to distribute the crisis money following the "from the top"-principle. That means it will be government's decision who to support, who to save in this crisis, and not the consumer's decision. History will judge if this decision was the right one.
4. As the budget was already in deficit pre-crisis, and reserves depleted, is the government of Estonia still capable of using this crisis for necessary structural reforms which would help to make the country more resilient to future crises? Or is the result simply a massive debt burden, and money spent on doubtful political projects? I' m hoping for the former, but afraid for the latter coming true.
5. The current crisis has reminded us how interconnected the world is. Developments which seem to take place somewhere far away can rapidly have the impact on the whole world. Today it's the virus. Tomorrow climate change. We have already witnessed how the air has become more breathable, the water cleaner, in many of the most polluted places in world.
And this change has happened after the previous behavior patterns had been on pause for only few weeks. What if we could change these behavior patterns for good, permanently using cleaner tech and science?
The current crisis is a kind of bitter, real-life exercise which nature is making us to go through. If we are getting that message, it could boost innovation and leave us with a better world.
Are we getting the message?
Keit Pentus-Rosimannus is Deputy Chair of the opposition Reform Party's Riigikogu group. She was Minister of Foreign Affairs in Taavi Rõivas' cabinet, and Minister of the Environment during Andrus Ansip's administration.
Editor: Andrew Whyte