State Secretary on the coronavirus crisis: We came to the precipice

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Taimar Peterkop. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The government will soon have at its disposal an ultramodern crisis management center and perhaps one of the most secretive buildings in Estonia. State Secretary Taimar Peterkop won't say what will take place there but talks about the culture of crisis preparedness instead.

Are you the top crisis regulator in Estonia now, as recent amendments to the Emergency Act moved crisis regulation coordination from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Government Office.

Estonia is a decentralized country where no one instance is the most important. (Smiles) Different agencies are expected to react depending on the crisis at which time they are the most important. It is usually the prime minister on the political level, while it was the State Information System's Authority (RIA) or the director of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) in the ID-card security crisis, for example.

You said in a press release that "moving crisis preparedness and management to the Government Office must contribute to the culture of preparing for crises." Do we have crisis culture and crisis preparedness culture?

Allow me to start further back… The world has become more unstable and will become more unstable still. We will find ourselves in unexpected situations more often.

Crisis preparedness culture means leaders pledging time and resources to be prepared for the unexpected. So we would have confidence courtesy of experience, planning and training instead of panic when something happens and could quickly and confidently start making decisions to solve the crisis.

The government crisis committee was formed in 1993 and was initially curated by an adviser to the PM, then the state secretary and, for the last 20 years, the interior minister. It seems logical.

It did 20 years ago. Preparation for military crises as the exclusive prerogative of the Ministry of Defense and preparing for civilian crises in the interior ministry – I do not know why it was moved there from the Government Office – were completely separate.

It makes no sense to keep these two worlds apart, which is why they have now been brought together at the Government Office. All crises – whether military, security or civilian crises – require similar preparation. And their management could also be similar. It is one of the lessons we learned from Covid.

These crises seem different. For example, Covid versus a situation where Russian rhetoric becomes decidedly anti-Estonian, Russian units stationed close to the border are reinforced with assault bombers and helicopter gunships, while the Estonian military intelligence reports heightened battle readiness.

Yes, but looking at it more closely, both crises affect the whole of society. The latter would require us to mobilize our reserve army that concerns the whole of society and would disrupt people's daily lives. Just as it is with Covid.

Secondly, political leadership takes place on the level of the prime minister in both cases.

Thirdly, these crises could easily coincide. We need to be prepared for attempts to escalate other scenarios in an existing crisis.

We cannot have agencies sitting in their separate towers, each addressing their own crisis. Therefore, it is sensible for coordination to transcend agencies, which is taken care of by the Government Office to allow the PM to manage solving the crisis.

In the end, all crises are similar. Some are domestic crises… The lesson I learned from the ID-card crisis is that a crisis you are prepared for is not really a crisis. Having plans for what might happen, resources to react, you can manage the situation and it is no longer unexpected.

We have had a crisis of some sort for the two and a half years I've served as state secretary. Politicians can give you a better idea, their lives are full of crises…

Taimar Peterkop. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

They can also manufacture crises.

Yes, no doubt…

Covid has taught us how to react quickly and flexibly.

It's not rocket science. The most important thing is to plan, prepare, consider these things important, spend time and organizational resources to consider potential scenarios and make corresponding preparations. Formal plans are unimportant, what matters is the culture of planning and being prepared for the unexpected. This provides confidence that if something goes wrong, we can act quickly, help politicians develop situational awareness and make the necessary decisions.

One can never be fully prepared for a crisis. Some aspects of what will happen and how will always remain unknown.

It begins on the level of individuals, you and me. Do you have stores of batteries, food and water at home? Have you given any thought to how you will eat for the next three days should the power go out? Where will you get your information?

The culture of being prepared, considering how to handle difficult situations starts on the level of individuals.

The next level is that of agency heads. What are the likeliest [crisis] scenarios in our administrative area and how to handle crisis tasks. Every agency must consider this.

We have digital, paperless e-governance, but how can an e-government make decisions if there is no power? We need to think about it and be prepared. We have digital communications, cables running into the building, but how will the government work if the cable breaks?

Finally, the state level. This is where the Government Office comes in to collect information and analyze it in terms of which nationwide scenarios to prepare for.

We must create this world, how to boost the know-how and skills of top public servants and have politicians realize what is likely to happen.

Taimar Peterkop. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Have you asked ministers how many batteries they have at home and whether they have charged their phones and have enough water?

I have not as it has not been my task until now. But I will ask members of the government the same question I asked you in the future.

I will be honest and admit I do not have such stores for three days at home.

However, it is important for the staff at the public broadcaster to serve as an example. I promise I will ask you again in a few months' time.

It is worth thinking about. Recall the storm in Võru County from two years ago, when that substation blew… Everyone should have basic knowledge of how to cope without power for a few days.

Loss of mobile communications would immediately spark a panic. People not being able to contact their loved ones or the state, agencies to keep in touch.

This is precisely why people should know whether they have batteries or a radio at home or enough fuel in the tank and a car stereo. It is the task of ERR to make sure that the radio stays on the air and forwards information.

Cultivating preparedness culture is important to avoid a panic.

That will be a long road.

It is a very long road, but every long journey begins with the first step an old commercial used to say. (Laughs)

Will amendments to the Emergency Act cause the Government Office to grow?

We have a structure (Security and National Defense Coordination Bureau – ed.) that brought preparation for security crises under this roof after the Russia-Ukraine war started. The recent crisis regulation task will bring us another five positions from the interior ministry. The same people who have been in charge of it so far.

The Russia-Georgia war, Russian invasion of Ukraine, coronavirus crisis – these are the things shaping Estonian crisis policy.

It is inevitable. It is said that generals are always prepared to fight the last war. However, it is human nature to learn from past crises.

It is also inevitable that politicians are always prepared to pledge more resources toward handling a crisis they have themselves experienced.

The next crisis is something we did not foresee. Because if we had foreseen it, there would in all likelihood be no crisis. That is why we must promote the culture of readiness to be prepared for the unexpected and capable of reacting.

It is very difficult – being prepared for crises we can neither phrase nor expect.

It is indeed.

Which coronavirus wave was easier to manage – the first or the second?

The first was easier. I cannot say to what extent the emergency situation contributed. We believed we had learned some lessons by the time the second wave hit, while we hadn't learned enough. Management organization was haywire, the government was changing…

There was more confusion and the crisis hit harder during the second wave. If the first wave saw more fear and less actual damage, it was the opposite during the second.

The government changed at the peak of the second wave, with Jüri Ratas handing over to Kaja Kallas.

It is a golden rule not to make changes at the top in the escalation phase. But politics is politics and what can you do.

Naturally, it has an effect [on crisis resolution]. The previous government and agencies had a rhythm, people knew one another and what to expect. This rhythm had to be created from scratch with the new government.

It is my view, and I will be direct here and not beat about the bush… I realize a lot of people perished, my condolences to everyone who lost loved ones. However, in the long run, it was good that we came to the precipice. It put immense stress on our healthcare system, while it held out and showed us our actual capacity.

It is likely that we will have to spend years in the company of the virus, and it will help us be prepared for the next time. For example, we now know that while we may have enough hospital beds and even doctors, not having enough nurses will bring us to our knees.

To see in the coronavirus crisis something positive, it's that every crisis prepares you for the next one. We got through it this time. We came much closer to the bottomless pit than during the first wave last spring, while I hope we do not have to go as far next time, having learned lessons.

Taimar peterkop. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Who is really in charge of crisis resolution – politicians led by the prime minister or Government Office regulators?

Politicians run the country. Officials are there to support them.

Crisis regulators must be ready for what they believe to be smart and the only sensible choice to be discarded by politicians.

Yes, such readiness is necessary as politicians are largely responsible. Officials bear responsibility too, but still – Estonia is run by politicians as it is not an administrative state.

However, that coin has a flip side. If [as a politician] you regularly and without reason steamroll the people who are working for you, good solutions quickly run out alongside initiative and proactive approach.

I imagine you will not allow photographers and cameramen in the situational awareness center?

(Pauses) It is meant for addressing security crises. Coverage [of the building in the media] is difficult so as not to give our adversary tips on how to attack us.

What would we see – cell phones need to be left behind the door, a screened bunker, a wall of screens, dozens of desks with computers, the constant hum of air conditioning and people shuffling around…

Solving a crisis starts with understanding what you are dealing with. The first task of the situation center is to create situational awareness of what is happening, what kind of crisis we are dealing with, what is the problem we want to solve, whether it's intentional or a natural disaster, as well as its short and long-term effects.

The situation center takes that know-how from different agencies, puts together a coherent overview and sends the material to politicians, the people who need to make decisions. Officials are sent the same material so everyone would be on the same page.

The situation center worked 24/7 during the Covid crisis and those whose used the information said it did a brilliant job collecting and analyzing information from Estonia and abroad.

I'm glad to hear that. The center worked and is still working 24/7 and its work is one of the positive experiences to come out of the coronavirus crisis.

Did you ever feel like you were about to lose control of the situation?

In February this year when we – I mean the whole officialdom – slept through the arrival of the British strain. We thought we knew how the virus behaved – we ramped up restrictions in Harju and Ida-Viru counties toward the year's end and the case rate was coming down.

We did not realize the British strain has become so widespread in our society in February. Despite certain restrictions, infection skyrocketed. I was afraid we had run out of tools to use at that point.

Everything is clear enough in hindsight. A more infectious strain ha taken over and tougher measures were in order to contain it. At the time, the way the virus was behaving felt anomalous.

How much better prepared will Estonia be for crises once the government's crisis management center building is completed?

Nothing will happen overnight. Buildings are important, while people are more important still. Changes in major systems take time – talking about introducing the culture of readiness. We will be in somewhat better shape with each passing year.

Is one of your goals having new ministers ask the secretary general and desk chiefs which crises to prepare for?

It would be ideal were ministers to ask and receive answers to such questions. That would be an excellent world.

Government Office. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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