Jaak Aaviksoo: More good governance, please

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Our democracy is incapable of making decisions and fails to ensure compliance when it does try. This kind of inability is especially dangerous in critical situations as the coronavirus is a quiet Tuesday compared to more serious natural or man-made disasters, not to mention a military conflict, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

Estonia's rather conspicuous rise to the ranks of countries struggling with the coronavirus has seen an explosive growth also of opinions on the virus.

In addition to politicians and specialists, journalists and opinion leaders, various interest groups and companies, heads of schools and other institutions, not to mention the motley crew of coronavirus deniers have joined in the coronavirus fray. Fuel is added to the fire by the vox populi of media channels. Everyone has their own truth and increasingly confident proposals for what should be done.

Nature cannot abide empty spaces, with this avalanche of views and notions the result of lack or weakness of official messages. Trying to navigate the resulting information noise is hopeless, while it is even more useless to hope this kind of a plethora of opinion will help solve the problem.

We just witnessed a mayor [Mihhail Kõlvart of Tallinn] tell the government and education minister to take a hike, while the mayor was extended the same recommendation by heads of schools, and I'm sure teachers working in those schools have a different view again. In the end, the decision is left up to parents who do not know who they should believe. In the meantime, the virus doesn't care one way or the other.

Looking back at us in this coronavirus mirror is the health of our democracy. Our democracy is incapable of making decisions and fails to ensure compliance when it does try. This kind of inability is especially dangerous in critical situations as the coronavirus is a quiet Tuesday compared to more serious natural or man-made disasters, not to mention a military conflict.

Allow me to propose a few ideas that could help remedy the situation.

Irresolution is the worst possible state. People look for support in a crisis and assurances of the situation being under control. This first and foremost requires simplicity, unity and clarity. But if the state lacks a plan, thousands will set about erecting mental barricades and the result should not surprise anyone. Once erected, such mental walls are very difficult to breach even with the best of what science has to offer.

It is regrettable to have to hear lengthy explanations of the complexity of problems, their unpredictability and in-house differences that include hints of sabotage by partners. It [decisions] requires courage from the leader and taking a far greater responsibility, while that is precisely what is needed.

But making the decision is just the first half of the equation – they also need to be carried out. And some critical decisions need to be executed unconditionally. Not because they are the best but to avoid the worst.

The most nonconstructive course of action is to express decision-makers' doubts by suggesting that while we made a decision, we will not be monitoring compliance and hope people will be sensible. I'm afraid this is precisely what has happened, which is what has encouraged people with different interests to ignore the rules and ridicule those who follow them.

The more critical the situation, the more egocentric people's behavior will become. The instinct of self-preservation. That is why restrictions usually cannot be delegated down so to speak, for they will be applied in a self-serving manner and contrary to the common benefit. Universal rules, even if at times disproportionate, are necessary to create a collective feeling of security, but more importantly to ensure trust as no one is then suspected of unfair treatment.

In a situation where the reproduction number R stands at 1.5, it no longer makes sense to keep arguing over whether to order restrictions A that is estimated to bring it down two times or restriction B for a reduction of three times or whether to just wait for a miracle instead. It is necessary to decide and execute what is faster and cheaper.

We have many rights that we vocally defend, while we have little understanding for where the rights of others begin and have completely forgotten our obligation to also guarantee the latter. Perhaps we should not be afraid of restrictive yet contestable decisions – the truth will out in judicial proceedings and it will be simpler next time.

It has likely also become clear that our young democracy has not had enough public and parliamentary debate over the balance of various rights and obligations, and not just as concerns the coronavirus crisis.

Even the fiercest freedom fighters realize the sensibility and usefulness of traffic rules, including that they have no business behind the wheel without a license and that drunk drivers will have to pay for the damage they cause. Perhaps this analogy should be applied to coronavirus rules.

Of course, we must make empirical and knowledge-based decisions, while we should not expect scientists to do the impossible. Science can credibly predict the consequences of our decisions and at best offer ideas for achieving the desired result, while it is fundamentally incapable of making value judgments or weighing healthcare and economic interests. That is the work and responsibility of politicians.

That is why I believe it is not wise to wait for the COVID-19 scientific advisory council to issue recommendations for closing schools and opening nightclubs or vice versa. An even more regrettable course of action is holding scientists responsible for such decisions. Let us not make politicians out of scientists, which is what the call to bring to the council more representatives of different fields smells like. Policy shaped by scientists is worth just as much as science done by politicians.

Estonia has a functional constitutional state where executive power is exercised by the government. We need common action to rise to major challenges and overcome difficulties, and ensuring that unity – through rules, enforcement of those rules and necessity-based decision-making – is precisely what ruling is. I expect a lot more good governance from our government.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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