The state paying for the isolation of diagnosed and potentially infectious people would be the most effective way to contain the spread of the virus next to vaccination, Lauri Läänemets writes.
Head of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) parliament group Henn Põlluaas told ERR that compensating the first sick day is not sensible "as it puts great strain on the state budget and opens the door to misuse." It would apparently also be very difficult to "turn back after the crisis." Põlluaas did exhibit a smidgen of empathy when he described the idea as beautiful in the eyes of low-income workers.
These thoughts were expressed during a time when Estonia's coronavirus figures are among the worst in the world and when it had become clear that tough measures that had been in effect for a fortnight had failed to produce results, with the case rate still high and people taking ill and dying.
Põlluaas' words reminded me of Mart Helme's ferocious performance from last fall. The Riigikogu was discussing the Social Democrats' bill to amend the way sickness benefits are paid to motivate people to stay home as soon as symptoms manifest.
Helme, who had recently stepped back as interior minister, said from the rostrum: "The bill is outright communist as it calls for yet more resources from the government." Helme also managed to refer to colleagues in the Riigikogu as half-witted in the speech teeming with anger.
Let is be said that the infection rate was breaking records at the time. On November 18, 274 people had tested positive in the last 24 hours. We can say in hindsight that had our bill been passed and executed, we would not be looking at figures many times worse today.
The Social Democrats made their proposal in September, while the previous government waited nearly four months before it decided to compensate people for the first sick days. Time and again, we were told that the cabinet would "consider and discuss" the proposal that eventually culminated in the decision to compensate people starting on the second sick day. The bitter truth today is that the measure that clearly came too late has also proved insufficient.
As concerns Põlluaas, he is likely bothered by Mart Helme's status as lord of a manor. One who aspires for such a status cannot be bothered to try and understand the concerns of people who earn seven times less and cannot work remotely.
When a person who makes the minimum salary is forced to stay home for a few weeks because they have developed mild symptoms or have been in close contact with a diagnosed person, it means losing almost €100 in income that month. Riina Sikkut has quite poignantly described it as fining people for staying home in everyone's common interest. And so, people take the risk and show up for work because they have a family to feed and rent and leasing payments to make. We need to do everything we possibly can to bring the reproduction rate down during this critical period when more than half of Covid outbreaks happen at workplaces.
The state paying for the isolation of diagnosed and potentially infectious people would be the most effective way to contain the spread of the virus next to efforts to ramp up the pace of vaccination. The solution is within reach as a bill by the Social Democrats that would see people compensated for 100 percent of pay starting on the first day of sick leave is waiting to be approved by the Riigikogu. Our bill would also lighten the load of employers.
However, the new government seems intent on stepping on its processor's rake and remains opposed to the plan even though coalition politicians, starting with Jüri Ratas, have admitted that compensating sick days is an effective way of combating the virus. Several government ministers have also welcomed the city of Tallinn's initiative to compensate the first sick day of Tallinners and recommendation for other local governments to do the same.
Unlike wealthy Tallinn, many Estonian rural municipalities and cities simply cannot afford it. I would urge the government not to saddle local counterparts with state tasks and add to regional inequality.
Allow me to comment on some of Põlluaas' claims in closing. The Social Democrats' sick days bill would not put any great pressure on the state budget. Calculations by the finance ministry put the price tag at €8.5 million or just 1.3 percent of the supplementary state budget.
Allow me to recall how last year's supplementary budget was used to allocate much larger sums here and there. Estonia temporarily compensated people for three sick days last spring that did not result in a wave of misuse. There would also be no need to reverse legislation as our bill only concerns those forced to stay home with a COVID-19 diagnosis or as close contacts.
Editor: Marcus Turovski