Mari-Liis Jakobson: Muddling through the coronavirus crisis

Mari-Liis Jakobson.
Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Private collection

Even though the national vaccination strategy document is far from being perfect and fails to fully answer all questions, execution becomes more important than detailing every last effect at one point, Mari-Liis Jakobson says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Estonia is a wondrous country. We behave as though we have a contract with the Almighty according to which Estonians cannot catch Covid in summer. That is more or less how I felt last summer upon my return to Estonia after spending a few months in the United States that was groaning after the first wave of Covid.

Upon returning to society after the mandatory two weeks in isolation, I felt an almost instinctive reaction to keep my distance from people, avoid crowded indoor spaces and grab a mask in the very first days that saw infection start to go up.

Scorched earth tactics not used

It seems that the said contract with heavenly forces was in effect last year. But what about this one? Did we miss the fine print at the end? (Something about the new Delta strain must have been in there!) And just as an early sign of autumn, masks are back, on public transport at first, while I'm sure it cannot hurt having them ready when going shopping or entering a major service bureau.

I make no secret of the fact that I have gotten used to the local custom again and cannot quite remember where I put my reusable masks in spring.

However, in recent days, events in the cabinet have overshadowed the micro level of ordinary citizens. Lightning struck twice last week. The first was Minister of Culture Anneli Ott's (Center) personal decision not to get vaccinated and the second Auditor General Janar Holm's letter pointing to shortcomings in how immunization is organized.

It was clear that [Center's] coalition partner the Reform Party had to react and, true enough, we were treated to a series of admonitions by prominent reformists on "Aktuaalne kaamera" this past Sunday.

It is worth noting that only politicians not part of the cabinet spoke up, meaning that a certain desire for compromise still exists and scorched earth tactics are not used.

Passions are also running high outside the government. There are those who have lost all faith in the ability of the ruling institutions to carry out an effective vaccination campaign, as well as those who question whether immunization is the most effective crisis management strategy as it fails to ensure full immunity.

People who are vaccinated can still catch the Delta strain and pass it on. One increasingly feels that Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) is communicating from a defensive position.

Megacrises do not favor thorough planning

The auditor general's criticism of the national immunization plan isn't difficult to address. As always, every strategy needs to have a clearly determined, reasoned and measurable target progress towards which should be regularly communicated. The auditor general also urges bringing vaccination closer to people.

We can take solace in knowing that is what the updated immunization plan, unveiled the next day, entails in broad strokes. True, there are still enough shortcomings for polemic to continue in the media.

What I personally took away from it was input data being predominantly medical – how many people have been vaccinated, as well as the technical specifications of vaccines. And even though more effective communication is one of its central goals, one can find no input in terms of the effectiveness of recent immunization communication or how this efficiency should be increased in the document.

How many entrenched vaccination-skeptics do we have and what is their skepticism based on? In how many people is this skepticism simply a normal impulse of rationalization? People for whom the vaccine is not conveniently available because they do not use state e-services, the closest vaccination center is an hour's drive and the available times simply not an option? Whereas the virus itself can be obtained from almost anywhere, for the purposes of recovering from it.

Of course, if we apply the same standards to the work of all ministers, we cannot honestly say the vaccination strategy is somehow more confusing than other general goals. The white book of crisis administration titled "Plan for organizing public life in the conditions of the spread of the coronavirus" is a prevailingly vague list of promises to "develop and improve."

But if the coronavirus pandemic has taught us nothing else it is that these kinds of megacrises do not favor thorough planning. The situation keeps changing daily and new and more accurate information keeps flowing in.

This situation was described by political scientist Charles Lindblom in his 1959 paper "The Science of Muddling Through." It describes an inevitable situation in which policy-shapers must tackle complex problems and that lacks an ideal solution that would be equally to the liking of legislators, executors and all social groups, as well as being free from negative side-effects.

That is why setting a general goal and finding effective measures by relying on constant comparison is key, instead of seeking a very detailed analysis.

For example, it was initially worth considering which method for weathering the crisis would be more effective in terms of material considerations and human lives: allowing people to catch and recover from the virus, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance or vaccination. Once you have made your choice between the three, comparison needs to continue: to what extent do the effects of vaccination in vaccination centers, family medicine centers and vaccination buses differ?

Next, you need to throw everything you've got at what you are left with: determine critical risks in execution, find ways of managing them and come up with the resources needed for the realization of the strategy.

In this context, the vaccination planning team has done quite well. Launching vaccination of select groups in family medicine centers was the most sensible option at first. Next, vaccination moved to the vaccination centers of major settlements for scale effect, with additional opportunities offered using vaccination buses on location.

Naturally, not all plans can be realized in full and there will always be gaps. But whether all of it is included in the strategy in fine detail or upon reaching which percentage point happiness was supposed to arrive is not that important at the end of the day as it tends to change in time.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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