Tiit Terik and Jan Trei: Covid crisis cannot be overcome without local govs

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Tiit Terik and Jan Trei. Source: Ilja Matusihis/ private collection

The new vaccination plan needs to include a carefully weighed and negotiated role of local governments and expectations for the plan's realization. We propose including the nationwide local government union in the planning and execution of the vaccination and activity plans, Tiit Terik and Jan Trei from the Association of Estonian Cities and Rural Municipalities (ELVL) write.

"Help from local governments is needed to solve the crisis." We have heard the phrase from practically every single scientist, politician, administrator recently. Unfortunately, help from local governments and the private sector has been discouraged in the process.

Finally, the importance of local governments is truly appreciated, while the question of why it took so long remains. The coronavirus pandemic hit 18 months ago. The importance of the contribution of cities and rural municipalities is only now beginning to be acknowledged.

Local governments pursued successful cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs when the crisis began. Different crisis strategies and the situation were discussed, experience and good practice shared. But that was then. By now, it is clear everyone has made mistakes in solving the crisis. While no one is disputing this, we might ask why were local governments forgotten for a time?

Local governments to help boost the pace of vaccination

Local government heads are not doctors or virologists to dispense recommendations. However, we have very good specialists for that whose recommendations we can put to use with help from the central government. Refusing help from local governments and the private sector was a serious mistake on the state's part. Now, it is said to be indispensable.

August 6 marked an extraordinary session of the Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee on vaccination activities. It was concluded that the state has failed to involve local governments or their associations in putting together a plan of vaccination.

Head of the immunization working group Marek Seer admitted he has no answer when asked why the nationwide local government association has not been involved in the vaccination plan. The local government is the level of public authority standing closest to the population and the most trusted political institution in Estonia. It is impossible to organize vaccination effectively and quickly enough without involving them.

Local governments have not been idle

Instead of efforts to ward them off, city and rural municipality heads should be involved. Putting their teams to work can help solve crises effectively. Local governments have helped speed up vaccination of the population following their own initiative. Local governments have:

1. worked with family doctors to specify vaccination appointments;

2. called the elderly, persons with disabilities and others who have trouble getting around and offered to organize transport;

3. published explanations and calls [for vaccination] in local papers in Estonian and Russian, made social media posts;

4. organized vaccination in suitable locations;

5. worked with the Health Insurance Fund and private companies authorized to vaccinate people to offer residents a convenient way to be immunized (time and place);

6. the ELVL has given local governments immediate information through direct mail and social media. A proposal from the ELVL saw the social ministry create a COVID-19 list with immediate information on vaccination;

7. ELVL has held thematic briefings for all local governments. Participants have been able to ask agencies in charge for information directly: Health Insurance Fund, Social Insurance Board, Ministry of Social Affairs. The vaccination successes of the city of Tartu and the municipality of Harku have been shared with others.

Harku exemplary, Lasnamäe catching up

As of August 5, Harku Municipality had vaccinated 47.45 percent of 12-17-year-olds and 70.06 percent of 18+ year-olds. The municipality's social and healthcare department has spearheaded several vaccination drives and aims to hold more, mostly aimed at students 12 years and older.

The local government has organized a vaccination bus, raised awareness using social media, schools, village associations, libraries – really all available channels of communication. It serves as a brilliant example of a local government taking the initiative and it producing results.

Tallinn's Lasnamäe borough is also deserving of mention. People who have visited Lasnamäe that was until recently often given as an example of lackluster vaccination progress, have seen vaccination buses in the parking lots of virtually every supermarket and cannot in good conscious claim people are not interested.

It seems at times that people are more interested in vaccines than going to the store, with winding queues in parking lots. The local government deserves recognition: the problem has been acknowledged, a solution has been found and the results are obvious.

The association's proposals

The new vaccination plan needs to include a carefully weighed and negotiated role of local governments and expectations for the plan's realization. We propose including the nationwide local government union in the creation and execution of vaccination and implementation plans.

Disseminating coordinated information openly and explaining the need for vaccination in a way to render the information legible, accessible and universally understandable. We need to make sure we have vaccines and the people to administer them. Everyone must be able to get vaccinated using the vaccine of their choice.

There should be fewer restrictions for people who are vaccinated that would be a simple way of demonstrating the benefit of immunization and a clear benefit. Many local governments have contributed to vaccination organization on their own. We propose compensating local governments for expenses (such as transport) and highlighting good performers.

Local governments also want an end to the crisis

Trust us when we say that Estonian local governments want to help and contribute to solving the crisis. Our common purpose is the same: to be able to return to normal life for the crisis to finally end. We urge the government to trust its local counterparts. Involve them in decision-making processes, show initiative to suggest the local level also matters.

Everyone has suggested as much in words, while now is the time for action. Local governments care about their people. No doubt, there are cities and municipalities that have done better in the crisis than others. However, this is where we need to learn from the best to help others catch up, motivate and support one another. We can do it together.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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