Prime minister: Emergency situation over, crisis endures

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu.

Despite all the preparations, plans and training, neither Estonia nor any other country was ready for the crisis. It is our duty to learn from the situation. We need to come out on the other side of it smarter, stronger and more resilient, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas says in a political statement delivered in front of the Riigikogu.

Nearly ten weeks ago, on March12, I addressed the honorable Riigikogu with a political statement on the crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

The World Health Organization had concluded that the spread of the virus had become a global epidemic the day before. We formed a government committee to address the virus and corresponding public health and economic problems that same morning. Later in the evening, the government declared Estonia's first emergency situation in history.

By then, Estonia had 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the virus was spreading domestically. By today, we have carried out 70,189 coronavirus tests, 1,784 of which have come back positive.

Unfortunately, the disease has claimed 64 lives in Estonia. It is the largest civilian crisis since Estonia restored its independence that has touched the lives of every person, region and walk of life in Estonia.

The spread of the virus has been slowing down for over a month now. The infection rate has remained under 1.0 since April 7, meaning that the virus is in retreat.

Random sample testing by University of Tartu researchers also concludes that the virus is not widespread in Estonia. We have seen ten or fewer daily cases of the virus throughout May. The number of COVID-19 patients who need to be treated in the hospital is also falling steadily.

On March 9, the government phrased six goals for addressing the crisis that can also be used to measure how the crisis has been handled.

They were:

1. to stop further spread of the virus into Estonia,

2. to stop the virus spreading locally,

3. to ensure the healthcare system's ability to fight and treat the virus,

4. to avoid a panic in society and raise awareness in terms of containing the spread of the virus and treatment,

5. to ensure coping with indirect consequences of the virus,

6. to ensure normal economic functioning as far as possible.

Lesson for maintaining EU unity

The spread of the virus into Estonia slowed after borders were temporarily closed. Extensive travel restrictions were necessary and almost all EU member states temporarily restored border control. There could have been more international cooperation and exchange of information as we saw disruptions in terms of people returning home and transport of strategic goods.

These disruptions demonstrated the value and security guarantee provided by a functional common European market and free movement. I believe that all parties have drawn conclusions and that it has become a lesson for maintaining EU unity.

We took several steps of considerable effect as a state and society to stop the virus spreading locally.

Above all, we needed an overview of the situation. We quickly increased our testing capacity that proved a bottleneck when the crisis began. Starting from February 5, we have been testing 806 people a day on average, with 2,506 samples analyzed on April 2.

A lot of attention has been paid to procurement of personal protective gear and protection of front-line workers. This has been achieved in the conditions of global competition or even a race where only shipments that have physically arrived can be counted on.

Mapping out the capacity of Estonian producers and taking advantage of relevant opportunities has also been vital. We have also managed to demonstrate solidarity with our NATO allies and Estonian aid to Italy and Spain was met with attention and sincere gratitude.

To stop the virus from spreading, social distance needed to be put between people and unnecessary contact avoided as much as possible. We banned public events and gatherings, introduced restrictions on movement between the islands and the mainland, closed schools, shopping malls, sports facilities and entertainment establishments. We laid down the 2+2 proximity rule and ordered COVID-19 patients and their relatives to remain in quarantine.

While these are very serious steps that prejudice people's rights and freedoms, we have managed to make do with much more relaxed measures than what we've seen from several European and world countries.

To ensure the coping of the healthcare system, it was necessary to prepare for the worst possible scenarios, the relative likelihood of which was reflected in news and reports from struggling countries.

In order to avoid the collapse of the medical system, hospitals needed the capacity to tend to a lot of COVID-19 patients that meant limiting planned treatment, creating so-called corona wards and boosting intensive care capacity.

Our healthcare system proved its capability and its limits were luckily not tested. The situation was at its most difficult a month into the emergency situation, on April 13, when 166 people needed to be treated in hospital, nine of whom were on assisted breathing. While the number of available beds has been changing, compared to peak capacity, 60 percent of general ward capacity and 17 percent of intensive care capacity was used that day.

Keeping people informed

It is extremely important for people to understand the goals of restrictions and necessity of steps in a critical situation. Keeping people informed helps them adjust their behavior and protect their own health and that of loved ones.

In addition to possibilities offered by the mass media, we also used email, direct mail and SMS messages to disseminate guidelines and where to find additional information. We launched the 1247 crisis hotline and a website with necessary information.

We also held daily press conferences with representatives of various agencies to communicate enough vital and accurate information. The press has also performed its task of keeping people informed meritoriously and responsibly in the crisis.

Commissioned by the government's communication bureau, pollster Turu-uuringute AS gauged public opinion and level of awareness on a weekly basis. Based on the results, I can say that society has been up to speed on crisis info and guidelines. While it was believed in the initial weeks of the emergency situation that crisis awareness was poor among the Russian-speaking part of the population, the facts suggest otherwise. Polls show that Russian-speaking people have been very diligent in complying with restrictions.

In addition to the healthcare system, this crisis concerns all other walks of life. We looked at ongoing research during the government's previous R&D committee meeting and commissioned analyses in four additional fields.

The latter concern ensuring supply security of vital goods, the effects of the crisis on people's mental health, socioeconomic effects of the spread of the virus and virologic, immunological and epidemiological research. All of it is based on preparing for the second wave of the virus.

Serious effects for our economy

We can see health statistics paid unprecedented attention in the context of economic forecasts and discussions. This health crisis holds serious effects for our economy and its outlook. Measures taken to contain the virus have delivered a very serious blow to economic activity in the EU in a matter of weeks.

Consumer spending, industrial output, services, investments, capital flow, supply chains and other important indicators have taken a serious hit.

The European Commission's spring economic forecasts suggests the Eurozone economy could shrink by 7.7 percent this year. It would be the greatest recession in the history of the European Union and far deeper than what was experienced during the financial crisis of 2009.

Economic forecasts are still very difficult to make because there is no precedent to which the current situation could be compared. The extent of uncertainty is reflected in scenarios where longstanding restrictions and a second wave of the epidemic could double the recession by the year's end.

The European Commission forecasts the Estonian economy to fall by 6.9 percent this year, which is less than the Eurozone average. The Commission's forecast also falls below the Ministry of Finance's April estimate of 8 percent as it takes into consideration mitigating effects of the 2020 supplementary budget.

The Eurozone's average fiscal deficit forecast for this year comes to 8.5 percent and public debt to 103 percent of GDP. Estonia's fiscal deficit will grow to 8 percent and national debt to 20.7 percent of GDP in 2020, remaining the lowest in the EU despite this considerable spike.

While easing of measures meant to contain the virus will create the premise for recovery, it is unlikely the EU or the Estonian economy can fully recover before the end of next year.

No one fully prepared for the crisis

Despite all preparations, plans and training, we can say that neither Estonia nor any other country in the world was fully prepared for such a crisis. We can take the global shortage of personal protective gear and disinfectant as the simplest examples. Problems have also been widespread when it comes to testing, viability of healthcare systems, availability of vital drugs. Additionally, there were shortcomings in international communication.

It is now our duty to learn from this situation. We need to come out on the other side of it smarter, stronger and more resilient. Our universally close ties to our nearest neighbors mean it is no accident easing of cross-border restrictions began with the Baltic states and Finland. We can move on one step at a time to eventually restore freedom of movement in the whole of the EU.

I'm very glad this crisis has provided clear proof that there are wise and hardworking people and agencies in Estonia who have contributed to finding rapid and smart solutions. It constitutes a valuable lesson.

Another valuable lesson is the constitutional possibility of declaring an emergency situation that was used for the first time in Estonian history. Estonia has seen no crisis to warrant the instrument in the past, while I can assure everyone in hindsight that declaring an emergency situation was the only thinkable course of action.

Of course, we did not take such a step lightly and there was plenty of doubt and caution both inside the government and among the people who advised us before the decision was made. Several fundamental questions needed to be answered concerning the justification, organization, duration and management of the emergency situation. I am extremely grateful to the justice chancellor and the state secretary who took part in those debates very effectively with advice and recommendations.

Even though current legislation provides extensive powers for the head of the emergency situation, I deemed it important to discuss decisions on the level of members of the government, officials, experts and scientists.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, public health and economic problems government committee created before Estonia declared an emergency situation became an important forum of debate. We also included a scientific council attached to the committee that provided its input in all important matters.

The special committee has met a total of 33 times and will continue its activities based on how the coronavirus situation will develop. In addition to the committee, the government level has been fully involved in helping solve the crisis.

The pivotal role played by the Government Office is certainly deserving of mention. The agency is a unique one in the Estonian state structure as it is charged with coordinating how other agencies prepare for and solve crises.

The Government Office has been successful in performing this task. Whether we're talking about putting together the exit strategy from the crisis, creating nationwide situational awareness through the national situation center or coordinating the activities and communication of agencies. The Government Office is also in charge of broad-based national defense activities to which coordinating preparations for civilian crises should, in my opinion, be added.

Another very important lesson in management is the appointment of emergency situation project heads in charge of procuring protective equipment and providing vital information through ISPs, for example, to people looking to return to Estonia from abroad.

Heads of the four regions of the Rescue Board and that of the Saaremaa region also played a crucial role, addressing the needs of local governments and relaying information to the head of the emergency situation, the government coronavirus committee and the cabinet.

I kept in touch with these project leaders on a regular basis and am sincerely grateful for their contribution. Using the Rescue Board structure for central regional crisis management has proven successful and the capacity needs to be developed accordingly.

During the emergency situation, we have had to change laws as a matter of urgency, which could not foresee the consequences of this crisis in its current form. As with crisis decisions in general, changes had to be made much faster than during the traditional decision-making process. I thank the honorable Riigikogu for its very quick and operative participation in resolving these issues.

The virus has not disappeared from Estonia

The emergency situation ended at midnight, but the crisis continues. Many restrictions are still in effect. We no longer need the emergency situation regime to manage it. The outbreak has subsided for now and the healthcare system is recovering, but the global course of the pandemic and the economic downturn resulting from the restrictions in many countries will affect us for a long time to come.

The virus has not disappeared from Estonia either and we are still finding newly infected people. Until we find an effective vaccine or medicine, which, according to the WHO, could take a long time, the virus will remain with us and we will have to learn to live with it.

At the same time, we are much better prepared for the spread of this infectious disease and others in the future. We know what resources we need, and by acting jointly and responsibly, we will overcome the crisis again.

The Government of the Republic of Estonia has adopted a strategy for exiting the situation caused by the spread of COVID-19. Work began on it as early as the second week of the crisis. Based on this, we have assessed the situation and made decisions on the restrictions to gradually return to a normal way of life. We are in the in the second stage of the strategy – the stabilization of the outbreak, followed by the readiness for another outbreak.

The primary role of the strategy has been to make us think about exiting the crisis, but it is not a calendar schedule, does not think for us, nor does it provide detailed instructions on a case-by-case basis. The document gives us directions and agrees on the state's goals, principles, and criteria, which all our people, organizations and institutions can follow and use to draw up their personal exit plans.

We want to emerge from the crisis a stronger and more cohesive society, with four strategic goals:

1. To ensure people's physical and mental health, i.e. to slow down the spread of the virus and to mitigate the impact of the virus on the healthcare system both in the short and long term.

2. To ensure people's livelihood and return to normal life, i.e. to mitigate the potential impact of the constraints of the emergency situation on people's income, job availability, education and daily lives.

3. To support the coping and competitiveness of companies, i.e. to alleviate the impact of corresponding restrictions.

4. To ensure the functioning of society and the state, i.e. to maintain the supply of vital goods and services at the necessary level, to ensure the security of the population, observance of the constitutional order and the independence of the Estonian state.

The key metrics of the strategy are milestones for us, on the basis of which we must also be prepared to go back to how things were if need be. Such flexibility is essential in our situation. Patience is also important, because exiting the crisis must not turn into a new lockdown.

The foundation of endurance

None of the established restrictions would work and we would not be able to achieve the desired goals if the people of Estonia had not taken responsibility not only for themselves, but also for their loved ones – their grandfather and grandmother, neighbor, friend, colleague, study partner and our entire small but excellent society. We have once again received proof that the people of Estonia, both in big cities and small villages, see Estonia as a society for all of us. This is what ensures that we will last.

I am deeply grateful to our healthcare professionals. I am also grateful to rescue officers, the police, the staff of the Health Board and the Alarm Centre, entrepreneurs, officials, diplomats and consular staff, local government members and a large number of volunteers. We saw how the Defense Forces and the Defense League supported the provision of healthcare and law enforcement with their resources and capabilities as has never been done before.

We also saw teachers and staff in kindergartens and schools, social workers, and municipal officials working to keep us all safe. We saw the contribution of entrepreneurs to reorganize their work and provide essential services and goods to people. We saw the hard work of scientists to study and explain the virus and its effects.

I am grateful to the President of the Republic for her active work and communication in the crisis situation. I am also very thankful for your thoughts, contribution and thorough cooperation, honorable members of the Riigikogu – be it in the Council of Elders, in committees, factions, on the floor, in correspondence and in conversations.

I wish us all health and wisdom for the future! I thank you all from the bottom of my heart! All the best, Estonia!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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