Külli Taro: People increasingly less afraid of virus than restrictions

Külli Taro.
Külli Taro. Source: Rene Riisalu

Efforts to maintain the state's credibility are the weakest link in Estonia's strategic plan. Controversial activities, inability to convincingly justify decisions and ensure compliance are undermining the authority of the powers that be, Külli Taro finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

I recently wrote a short overview of how and why national strategies for managing the coronavirus differ from one country to the next. Social studies emphasize that the toolbox for successfully handling the pandemic must include clear targets, consistency and credibility of state actions. The institutional organization and cultural environment of countries needs to be considered. How is Estonia doing in those terms?

We have been swinging from getting rid of the virus to learning to live with it and back in our strategic planning, as have many other countries.

Last spring, the government approved a plan for exiting the crisis. Society was sent the message that the crisis is over. This despite warnings by scientists that the virus is not going anywhere and that preparations for new waves need to be made. And so it happened that an extensive campaign titled "Let us Keep Life in Estonia Open!" was finished just in time for new restrictions to follow soon after this fall.

The goals included in the government's so-called white book approved in spring are beautiful: to protect the people of Estonia from being infected with the coronavirus, ensure the resilience of the healthcare and social systems, achieve rapid recovery following the coronavirus crisis. Once again, I felt like the virus was being underestimated. Nor was it specified who would be responsible for realizing these short and long-term activities.

Society's preparedness to follow the direction provided by the state is dwindling. Political competitors, who often bear part of the responsibility, are happy to undermine the government at every turn.

Aiming for consistency is reflected in efforts to keep schools open. But some local governments and schools did not care for it. While the state can be criticized for only launching school testing recently, the reluctance of some teachers and heads of schools in organizing testing is even more incomprehensible. Schools are obligated to ensure a safe study environment and testing is the most effective tool we have for that today.

But efforts to maintain the state's credibility are the weakest link in Estonia's strategic plan. Controversial activities, inability to convincingly justify decisions and ensure compliance are undermining the authority of the powers that be.

Goals and rules are meaningless when people fail to comply with restrictions. On top of everything else, the state has to ensure fair competition. Entrepreneurs need equal conditions. A situation where one group is complying with rules while others couldn't care less creates unfair conditions and leads to disappointment.

The government has also repeatedly gone back on its word. The permissibility of booster doses and the vaccine damages fund serve as recent examples. The message changes from one week to the next. This reflects poorly on the government even if the final decisions is the right one.

Members of a free society follow rules the benefits and necessity of which they understand. It is a fool's hope to expect everyone in Estonia to do something just because the government demands it. We still remember well the incomprehensible and harebrained requirements of the Soviet Union that any sensible person did their best to avoid. Bypassing these rules was a matter of self-respect. Compliance with social rules is far more natural in old democracies.

The outgoing week brought new examples of controversial activities and messages. The Health Board said the virus was spreading mainly between people's homes, workplaces and childcare institutions. The Põlva Municipality mayor said private parties and gatherings are the main source of infection in the region. Outbreaks in nursing homes. Infection spreading in hospitals a problem.

The government's reaction was to lower the ceiling on participants of public events. How should dialing back sporting or cultural events help reduce infections at home or improve hospitals' infection control efforts? Besides, the Health Board has said that major events have sported the best-considered measures. Government communication then told us that no such events are planned for the near future anyway.

All of it leaves the impression of doing something for the sake of having done something, sending a message. This kind of a "let us do something" strategy is unconvincing and does nothing to contribute to the state's credibility or lead us out of the crisis.

Communication problems [of the government] have been widely discussed. However, it has been overlooked that in individualistic cultures, efforts to convince should concentrate on the pros and cons of various decisions for individuals. Emphasizing solidarity is less effective. While it is still true that we take care of other people by getting vaccinated and staying home when sick and that considering other people is still everyone's obligation.

In summary, it would be time to ponder the moment when state tasks in containing the coronavirus will be limited to vaccination and treatment. Will it ever arrive?

The longer the government clings to the responsibility of preventing infection, the less looking after one's health is seen as a personal task. People are used to the state prescribing everything. They no longer think about what would be safe but only ask whether something is permitted. People are increasingly less afraid of the virus and more afraid of government intervention and restrictions.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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