Defense chief: Defeating coronavirus pandemic war of our generation

Estonian defense forces Maj. Gen. Martin Herem.
Estonian defense forces Maj. Gen. Martin Herem. Source: Karl-Erik Tölpt

Defeating the coronavirus pandemic is the war of our generation, and the sense of unity emerging in the Estonian society provides certainty that this battle will be won, commander of the Estonian defense forces Maj. Gen. Martin Herem said in his speech on the 103rd anniversary of the Republic of Estonia on Wednesday.

Herem's speech is published in full below:

Good people of Estonia!

This year we are celebrating the birthday of our country at a rather difficult time. This is not the first time that we have celebrated the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in trying times, for example, in 1919 and 1920, when the people were fighting for their country in war, but also in 1939 and 1940, when everyone was hoping that a devastating war would not come.

In retrospect, we are able to say that things definitely turned out for the better when there was greater unity among the people. When the common goals of society outweighed personal fears, the ramblings of know-it-alls, individual desires for absolute freedom, or taking offense at the actions of government officials. It is quite likely that the people who pledged their lives in the War of Independence shared a dislike for a number of politicians, reviled officials, or direct superiors. Even one's neighbour in the trenches was often unsympathetic. Of course, many were not fond of forced mobilisation. Despite all this, they worked towards common goals. For the freedom of their people and of the country.

At the end of last year, Ivo Linna said that the coronavirus pandemic is likely our generation's war. Every generation before us has had their own experience with war. Considering this last year of restrictions, dangers, ignorance and often loneliness, this is probably something that people can agree with. After all, this is not the usual peacetime experience. True – we have not lost people as we did during the two world wars, but we still witness and experience everyday battles and losses.

The most visible battle is, of course, taking place in healthcare – in this battle, the Republic of Estonia has not been defeated. On the contrary, as was the case 102 years ago, we have now turned defence into offence.

However, a much more covert war is taking place on the front of people's feelings, perceptions, opinions, and doubts. As tends to be the case in times of uncertainty, there is a great deal of disbelief and mistrust. There is harsh criticism and even hatred towards decision-makers. Who should I trust? Scientists, the government, officials, or myself? Should I think and act as I see fit?

Professor Mati Heidmets has called this situation a 'natural experiment', one that reveals how strong the sense of unity of a society or nation is. How much are citizens willing to limit their own desires for the greater good? In the War of Independence, our ancestors were able to do so. Sometimes they spat in each other's food, yet still went into battle together. Certainly not for Päts, Puskar or Piip, but for a sense of unity, for their home and their people.

The same unity existed in the 1940s, otherwise thousands of men and women would not have been able to fight against and hide from foreign rule for years as Forest Brothers. Although disagreements and betrayals occurred, the Forest Brothers never pulled the trigger lightly and the public never stopped supporting them.

Unlike many other nations, in the late 1980s, our sense of unity proved to be stronger than our mutual hostility or disagreements. This feeling of community concluded with the restoration of the Republic of Estonia, allowing us today to celebrate the 103rd anniversary of our country. In the most difficult of times, our people have found a sense of national unity that has protected us. This was the case on the front lines of the War of Independence, during the fight as Forest Brothers, during the Singing Revolution, and it is also necessary now.

As the Commander of the Defense Forces, I can appreciate our modern war heroes. Those who are defending our country by participating in far-away missions, but also those who are currently fighting on the front line against this unpredictable disease.

Are not our healthcare workers worthy of admiration? They are tirelessly fighting for our lives in hospitals and getting vaccinated, despite personal doubts, but doing so in all of our interests. The police also stand face to face with the coronavirus every day, despite not having any weapons with which to combat it. They do so in spite of fatigue and an invisible danger, standing for the people and the state.

Many volunteers – members of the Defense League and of the women's organisation Naiskodukaitse – are coming to the aid of the state because … the state needs them and the state is needed.

Government officials and scientists are also doing their best in the interests of society, even when they know that some people question their competence, years of study and sincerity, and mock them on Facebook. Nevertheless, they continue working to protect even these people.

Last spring, we placed the conscripts in the military units of the Defense Forces under lockdown, in an effort to achieve the training goals while also ensuring that they can act as a reserve for the state should something even worse happen. Initially, this decision caused murmurings of discontent. However, as the situation became clearer, the conscripts posed the question: "Can we not do something for our country?" The answer is simple: "Yes, you can do your duty, but you can also do much more – keep your loved ones safe, inform them and, if necessary, also warn them."

A British officer serving among us came to me in the spring and said: 'I have a problem. My soldiers want to help you in the fight against the virus. What can we do?' They are our allies... This too is a sense of unity.

Last December, conscripts graduating from a paramedic course were asked just before the Christmas holiday: "If there is a shortage of staff in care homes, are you ready to voluntarily return from your leave to serve?" This was a fair question that most answered in the affirmative.

Based on these few examples, I can confirm that I have seen the sense of unity that we need to defeat our opponent. We possess this sense of unity, it exists in most of us, even if we do not realise it ourselves, even if we doubt it. And I can assure you – we have the will, the desire, and the pride to win this war and the next war, whatever that war may be.

I have a feeling that in a few years, on the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, we will be able to say that we have won this war and the result of this natural experiment has been good... because today we have a great 103-year old nation and a people with a strong sense of unity.

Long live the Republic of Estonia!


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Editor: Helen Wright

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