Kaja Kallas: Fines need to follow noncompliance with measures

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Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Source: Stenbock House.

My wish is for Estonia to remain as open as possible during the coronavirus period. We managed to take care for a long time, while we have let ourselves go now that overcoming the virus is within our reach, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas writes on the eve of entry into force of new coronavirus measures.

Good people of Estonia, please stay home. Those who can work remotely should do that. Please dial back contact with other people. Please keep your distance from others. Because the virus is widespread in Estonia now and we must break that trend together. The government cannot do that by itself as the virus is spread by people and it is up to every one of us to stop this thing.

March will bring new restrictions. Some say they are too harsh, while others suggest they are not strong enough. However, restrictions no matter how strict do not work if people fail to comply. We have seen as much in other European countries.

Yes, while we can always assign more patrols to keep tabs on compliance, do we really want the police making sure people stay two meters apart instead of catching criminals? Why cannot we do that ourselves?

The trouble with this virus is that it requires young people to hold back in order to spare the elderly. While young people see the virus around them, they mostly see mild cases where the person is back on their feet after a few days of fever and headache.

That is why young people tend to believe that measures are unnecessary and do not have to be complied with, because the disease isn't even as bad as the flu. They do not see people for whom it is very serious and who need to be hospitalized. Furthermore, everyone is tired and frustrated as a result of the virus and restrictions that only adds to defiance and unwillingness to comply with the rules.

It is my wish for Estonia to remain as open as possible throughout the coronavirus period. And Estonia has remained relatively open compared to other countries. We do not have a curfew, while our cafes, shops, cinemas and theaters have stayed open. We have managed to take care for a long time, while we have let ourselves go now that overcoming the virus is within our reach.

We have all heard too many stories about people ignoring measures in shops, playrooms, entertainment establishments and spas. Customers and visitors ignore the rules, while those whose salary or business revenue depends on society remaining open fail to enforce them.

This is not a perceived generalization but a fact that is reflected in Estonia's spiking COVID-19 case rate. The coronavirus is widespread everywhere, with a third of people now unable to say where they caught it. As a result, we have decided to monitor compliance more closely and make sure violators are fined.

I'm sure there are a lot of people and companies that are diligent, responsible and for whom restrictions constitute expenses. And that is what frustrates me the most – that those who care nothing for restrictions are punishing those doing everything they can to keep society open.

There is no reason to believe that ignoring coronavirus measures is without consequence. The latter exist and are rather serious – lessons canceled, mental health issues, income lost and people being locked in their homes.

The aim of restrictions has been to avoid overloading the medical system or severe cases of the disease that require hospitalization. That is why we have allocated funds for acquiring Remdesivir that can ease the disease's progression and shorten time spent in the hospital.

That is also why we have decided to vaccinate the elderly and people belonging to risk groups first – to manage their risk and bring down the number of people who need to be hospitalized.

Our healthcare system is robust and has held out until now. Members of the COVID-19 scientific advisory council said just last week that half of Covid beds of major hospitals are empty and the load on the healthcare system manageable.

The total number of beds included small hospitals where many patients did not arrive with Covid but caught it after being admitted. What changed over the past week is that the workload of hospitals in the north exploded, while the region has major hospitals that have to treat other diseases and the patients of which cannot always be moved.

Our 14-day case rate per 100,000 people is among the highest in Europe today. I attended the European Council meeting on Thursday and Friday where the Covid crisis and vaccination were the main topics. Many countries saw their case rate hit the 1,000-1,500/100,000/14 days level when ours remained very low. We have peaked now that others have managed to get infection under control, which is why it stands out.

The number of people hospitalized started going up in November and reached the current plateau in late December.

One can only speculate why today's opposition, members of the government back then failed to adopt tougher measures then. It was likely because they also realized that people who come down with COVID-19 are not the only victims of this crisis as those who lose their job, children forced to miss lessons and those with mental health concerns are also affected. Whereas laying down tough measures too soon risks sparking defiance and reluctance to comply.

March will be difficult. We need to keep ourselves in check to make sure the virus will not stay with us for the entire summer. Please stay home and keep your distance from others. Wash your hands and wear a mask indoors.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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