Lauristin: Why is no one protesting against red traffic lights?

Marju Lauristin.
Marju Lauristin. Source: Ülo Josing

University of Tartu social scientist and veteran politician Marju Lauristin said the government's immunization plans have failed, since they have failed to account for the need to inform people of their personal risks. She said she supports mandatory vaccinations for people in certain occupations and the implementation of clear restrictions, as this is all done in the interest of security in the context of a pandemic.

Estonians are used to considering themselves among the best in eastern Europe. But now, to justify low vaccination rates, they say we are still just regular Eastern Europeans. Do you agree?

Painting everyone with such a broad brush does not explain anything. Especially when we look at behavior as it relates to health, it is very connected to the actual daily lives and decisions of many people. Of course, in Estonia, as in other post-communist countries, trust in the government and state is generally lower. In Nordic countries, for example, the state is not seen as some alienated monster, but rather a tool to organize daily life, with which people have a personal connection.

Why has the vaccination process gotten stuck in Estonia? What is going on in people's heads?

I don't know what is happening in people's heads, but I can see what is happening in Estonia. And what is happening in Estonia is still linked to a so-called false start. This is a marathon. And if things go wrong at the start, there is not much you can do to fix it. The organizational side of the vaccination process has been helpless from the start.

I truly wonder why politicians, who will end up as ministers or prime ministers, have suddenly forgotten everything they know so well. It is all so clear to them when organizing election campaigns. They calculate how to reach someone, how to contact someone using which media channel, how to make it so messages reach them on Facebook, who should be shown clips on TV and who should not see them. It is elementary. Politicians are very meticulous about this since their own interests are at stake. But now, as people need to be influenced to act reasonably for their health and they need to be informed of a new danger, it seems like they are in the dark.

For example - how was it decided that older people should be notified of vaccinations via the e-state? No politician would ever turn to retirement-age voters through the e-state! Politicians know very well that you must reach older people through local radio or through the local newspaper, direct mail or meetings. No one is going to put up a post on Twitter to tell voters over the age of 65 who to vote for.

But for some reason, they thought this was not necessary for vaccinations. Or rather, they did not want to spend money on creating a proper team who would have worked through the immunization plan. There has still not been one effective social campaign, which would make it clear why the coronavirus is more dangerous than the simple flu.

When speaking about the necessity of getting vaccinated, this has not been linked to peoples' emotional values. It has been done through general things, such as the burden on hospitals or economic setbacks, but these things are not important to most people, these things are not even in their thoughts. Communication has been completely ill-reasoned from the beginning. And to be honest, it has been completely astonishing.

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik will likely not leave his position any time soon as he is just too instrumental in terms of keeping the government together. How can a breakthrough be achieved with the same leadership if everything they are offering must seem credible in the eyes of those doubting vaccines?

We actually have one positive example right in front of us, we have a very trustworthy spokesperson: Dr. Arkadi Popov. A doctor everyone listened to. The Health Board suddenly had a face. And that face was familiar and trustworthy.

But what is the situation now? The Health Board does not have a trustworthy face, these unmemorable officials are not authoritative to people. And on the other hand, the role of politicians has been made too big. Vaccinations are a very practical question. Logistics, for example - how to reach someone? Or the question of risk assessment. Currently, assessments are made by large group, such as the elderly or by region.

I will point out another example from the advertising world, they know consumer groups very well and how to communicate and interact with them. But the government essentially turned down cooperation with the private sector in the beginning. The private sector has a tool box with precision tools for communicating with consumer groups, how to get in touch with them. And how to get people to do what entrepreneurs consider important. But politicians still thought they know best.

Right now, or rather, a long time ago, a task force consisting of people from different fields, both private and public sector, should be created alongside the scientific council. Social scientists, logistics planners, IT-experts and so on. Members of the task force would be well-known people, who would make knowledgeable decisions and plan organizational measures. And not by playing a helpless person, like Marek Seer (former head of the COVID-19 vaccination work group - ed.). Then another helpless official will be phased out, they will have immense responsibility, although we know they do not have the competence nor the resources to see all circumstances and make them work in synchronicity.

We need clarity, synchronicity and order. These actions are late and everything is harder to do now than a year ago. But there is nothing else left to do. If we look at the now happily free Denmark or Finland, they have acted consistently and practically. They have succeeded in acting unanimously not because they are somehow mystically Nordic, but rather because they just have more administrative capacity. I am saddened that our country's decent administrative capacity has drastically fallen, in my opinion. Let us remember the preparations for the adoption of the euro.

Marju Lauristin. Source: (Siim Lõvi /ERR)

Lithuania and Latvia have maintained a higher vaccination rate than Estonia in recent weeks. Some people think the strict behavior toward unvaccinated people is the cause, as unvaccinated people cannot operate in society as freely as they can in Estonia. Is it possible to direct people to get vaccinated through orders and restrictions?

When I listen to discussions about the necessity of restrictions, I think of traffic laws. Why is no one protesting against having to stop their car at a red light or being forced to drive on the right-hand side of the road? That is also a restriction on freedom of movement. Why are people not protesting and waving banners?

We all understand there are high speeds in traffic and moving in masses would be catastrophic if rules were not followed. The Nordic countries have acted on the basis of security and nothing else. And security is exactly the value, which should be followed. There is a lot of confusion in Estonia. Data protection rules forbid employers to ask for their employees' vaccination status, for example.

Since I have worked on the data protection regulation myself, I know it clearly states that the state can implement extraordinary rules in the interest of public safety and that also pertains to people's health information. Rule implementation in Estonia has failed because they get into endless arguments without there being any consequences. But these rules must be imposed. We immediately have this fear of restrictions being there forever. That is yet another example of lacking trust in democratic mechanisms.

A concrete situational risk assessment should be conducted. And I am very much in favor of vaccinations being mandatory in occupations where a person can be a danger to many, or vice versa. Medics, social workers, teachers, for example. They should clearly be forced to get vaccinated.

And people going to public places should be vaccinated and they must have proof. I do not see this as a restriction of freedom. And the faster we can adopt this logic - that rules are necessary for our health - the better. It helps protect us all.

On the other hand, very little has been made of topics that are emotionally closer to people. True, if grandchildren want to visit their grandparents, they are interested in them being vaccinated. And they themselves. These situations are endless. For choral singing to sound good, people must be together. This presupposes that singers are vaccinated. Concrete rules must be established for people to understand that we are not getting vaccinated to ensure some abstract healthcare capability or prop up the economy.

The most urgent thing currently is vaccinating risk groups. These are people who risk losing their lungs, and therefore, their lives. I still do not understand older gentlemen who are not planning on getting vaccinated, although it is very likely they will end up in a hospital bed and the morgue...

No need to tell me that, I am 81 years old. I have a class [on Monday], there are students there. And I know if I get the infection, I am likely to die.

But you are vaccinated?

I am vaccinated, but I would like to get a third dose and hope to do so soon. But I emphasize that there are no abstract risk groups. Let's take an 81-year old gentleman, for example. If this man lives in Võru County or Valga County, he might not even be able to go to the store once a month. He lives alone on a big farm and has no sense of being in contact with people. His greatest risk and fear is loneliness and not getting help even if he needs it, because no one will come.

If we start telling this gentleman in Võru County that there will soon not be enough beds in a hospital in Tartu, it is almost like asking him if there is life on the moon. Those in charge cannot imagine that these are actually regular people and they are not in the capital city's information space every day. How little they actually sense this so-called broad picture. This is where we need a kind of approach that goes through local governments, and it is a shame that local governments were left out from the beginning. These communication channels exist, but they have not been used enough.

This example of an older man living in a rural area is a completely different situation from what my colleagues or I experience, being in constant contact with people every day. We are mostly in contact with younger people and older people are more likely to get the infection from a younger person. Therefore, young people in contact with these older people have a lot of responsibility. But we saw during the first and second wave that the elderly are just left out of Estonian society. They are told to be by themselves. I saw plenty of young people discussing this on social media - why should we have to give up our fun for these old people, it is time for them to die anyway... This pandemic has highlighted very sharp social issues in intergenerational communication.

A very complicated question involves the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). The majority of the party's leaders are all vaccinated, but they flirt with people opposed to vaccines. They abuse the part of society that trusts the Estonian state the least. What should other parties do in this situation?

Threatening risks should be better explained to people. The concept of risk should be brought to their daily lives and emotions, where it is reflected as caution, fear or caring. And if a person has that emotion, they will react accordingly to political manipulation of this kind. But if that risk is not clear to the person, they can be manipulated.

But EKRE is not only doing this for coronavirus topics; their tactics are the same with the green revolution. And of course, some people that go along with it get even more into it. But at the end, this does not concern a decisive part of society.

Marju Lauristin. Source: ERR


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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