Indrek Saar: Ministers scoring points instead of containing virus

Indrek Saar on a recent installment of
Indrek Saar on a recent installment of "Esimene stuudio". Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The list of things undone on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus is regrettably long, Indrek Saar finds.

I suppose many still remember those Sunday nights in early spring when "television preacher" [Prime Minister] Jüri Ratas (Center) appeared on ETV to give us the weekly lecture. Allow me to refrain from commenting on the prime minister's style and performance in said role. However, even the most skeptical people were sent a clear message by the prime minister's address and many other that the situation was critical and that everyone had to take the fight against COVID-19 seriously and protect their own health as well as that of others.

And the people of Estonia maintained social distance, refrained from showing up for work sick, wore masks and gloves in shops and when taking public transport, disinfected packages and even left groceries in the delivery bag for days to stop the virus from spreading.

While we can criticize more than a few such precautions in terms of their effectiveness in hindsight, we did what common sense dictates – it is better to be safe than sorry! As a result of this common effort, the virus receded.

Since then, I have heard members of the government say on numerous occasions how we have become much wiser when it comes to containing healthcare crises. It is all the more baffling and worrying to see complete passivity on the government's part in terms of preventing and containing the second wave.

"The problem today is people with symptoms showing up for work," Mari-Anne Härma, head of the Health Board's communicable diseases monitoring and epidemic control department, said a few days ago. The Social Democrats warned in the first days of September that people going to work with mild symptoms will be of key importance when the infection rate begins to climb again and that compensating people for the first three sick days is the remedy.

Because the government chose to ignore the topic of compensating the first three days, we introduced a corresponding bill in the Riigikogu four weeks ago. More generous sick leave benefits are also supported by trade unions that say the risk of people showing up sick needs to be minimized.

The government should have sent to the Riigikogu corresponding legislation back in June. That would have helped us be better prepared for the second wave. Unfortunately, as the number of workplace outbreaks continues to grow, the government is still incapable of making this vital decision.

I hold this kind of passivity to be wholly irresponsible. The virus cares nothing for fiscal cycles and finding a few dozen million euros (that the policy would require – ed.) cannot be a problem in a situation where Estonia has borrowed billions – lack of funds is not a credible excuse in this case.

Or perhaps sick days fall into the same category these days as agriculture and the tourism sector, teachers' salaries and national defense investments? One where Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) has his own agenda and blocks everything that he does not approve of. Whether the reason is payback for people not backing down and failing to show the government proper respect, the desire to benefit a select group of entrepreneurs or simply disregard coupled with a lack of empathy?

The list of things undone on the front lines of combating the coronavirus is regrettably long. For example, we have not heard clear and confident calls for people to wear masks, employers have not been given guidelines for handling the critical situation and no funding has been allocated for thermal cameras. The latter have proved their usefulness in schools.

In the end, it doesn't matter how ministers score tactical points and play their political musical chairs game in the government. However, it is unacceptable when basic things that need to be done to protect people's health and lives, as well as the economy and life in general go undone in the process.

Would someone please remind Jüri Ratas of the fact that the position of prime minister comes with responsibilities.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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