Indrek Kiisler: High time we learned to live with the virus

Indrek Kiisler.
Indrek Kiisler. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The coronavirus crisis has at least one upside. We can feel that Estonia really is an independent country. Truly independent. One that makes its own decisions and the people and government of which are responsible. It sounds high and mighty, while it's also the truth, Indrek Kiisler writes.

It is enough to look at what has been happening in Latvia in recent months. Latvia was and remains under virtually wartime restrictions. Estonians were amused when the Latvian government decided in mid-January that its people can once again buy matches, snow shovels and socks in supermarkets. All were listed as goods not to be sold for a time. By mid-February, the Latvian government realized that a nationwide nighttime curfew was foolish in harsh winter weather.

Next to Latvia's dark cities, Estonia comes off as fairy tale land clad in bright lights. Otepää and Pärnu, with their open spas, not to mention shops and restaurants, lie just 50 kilometers from the Latvian border. Life is virtually unrestricted. This wonderland was our own choice this winter and comes with consequences. Both positive and definitely also negative.

Our infection rate has remained virtually unchanged since New Year's, while other counties have managed to temporarily suppress the virus resorting to strict measures. Estonia's COVID-19 figures are among the poorest in Europe. Hundreds have succumbed to the virus. But it was Estonia's choice and responsibility.

The increasingly influential German government decided on Thursday that society needs to hit a clear numerical target. To bring the 14-day case rate down to 35 per 100,000 residents. Schools, cultural establishments and sports facilities will remain closed, while Germans will be allowed to go to the hairdresser from March 1 as a German citizen drowning under too much hair is considered degrading.

Once more, it seems amusing viewed from Estonia, while the Germans are very much entitled to decide how they organize their affairs. If they really trust outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel who said that there might be(!) a new mutated form of the virus in the coming months and summer, Germans might feel it is safer to seek refuge at home. Germany has challenged other European countries to a kind of race of who can get their case rate the lowest at any cost.

That said, we have also arrived at a kind of crossroads in Estonia. Our reproduction number has hovered around 1 in the last few weeks. Despite this, many fear that Estonia might also be hit by a tsunami and explosion of COVID-19. The faint hope that the infection rate will slow down on its own has not materialized.

Voices saying that something needs to be done are getting louder. People who diligently stick to restrictions themselves are the most cast down. How long can a person who has cut themselves off completely from friends and close relatives, does not visit cultural establishments and restaurants or bars keep calm watching the case rate balloon? A person who has been living in isolation at home for a full year. Cutting oneself off from how life used to be is painful, especially in a situation where a positive solution is nowhere in sight. It eventually leads to suppressed anger, a desire to attack the virus with one's bare hands.

People tend to make demands proceeding from their personal point of view. Many older people feel that schools should be closed. Those who never eat our would close restaurants. While others have started to hate sports clubs.

People in public employ are also more likely to support restrictions as closures do not directly affect their income. People with higher education are better off in that they can usually work from home and demand everyone else do the same.

It is likely that pressure on the government and the COVID-19 scientific advisory council will continue to mount. Whereas more than a few measures only have scarce scientific proof to go on. While closing an already empty movie theater might help avoid a few cases, it has no real effect on the prevalence of the virus. And it is difficult to ascertain what is behind statistics.

For example, Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma recently said that infection is up among people under the age of 19. At the same time, only 24 percent of them are infected in school. The remaining 76 percent pick up the virus somewhere else. What would closing schools yield in this situation? It would result in a temporary slowdown and avoid hundreds of new cases. However, the previous situation would return as soon as we sent kids back to school, putting us back where we started in a matter of weeks.

We need to admit sooner or later that the virus will stay with us for long months to come and that summer might be no better since vaccination is progressing slowly and we don't really know how long vaccines can protect us from the virus. People's preparedness to dial back their lives is not what it was in March-April last year.

Perhaps it helps to think of ourselves as sprinters running a marathon who need to pace themselves to make it to the end as the tactic of bursts of speed followed by standstill while one catches one's breath will take even longer to cover the distance.

Scrambling will result in what happened in Ireland where coronavirus figures spiked when people who had been held behind lock and key for a long time were suddenly allowed to visit bars. The case rate hit 1,400 in two weeks. No matter what the government will decide in the short run, we need to count on a more difficult spring than last year. And the honest thing to do would be to communicate this message publicly.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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