Ülo Matteus: Emotions, myths and a constantly poor government
Is our political elite even capable of ensuring Estonia's longevity and stability? Or are the political ambitions of various political forces more important, Ülo Mattheus asks in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.
As we know, certain functions in the human brain are governed by the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain that produces and regulates emotions and is in charge of our survival and self-defense, while certain functions are performed by the prefrontal cortex, also known as reason, that guides the former and keeps it in check.
In moments of danger or when emotions get to be too much, reason simply switches off. The limbic system pumps adrenaline into our bloodstream to allow us to jump out of the way of a speeding car, defend against an attacker or to enable an emotional discharge when something is greatly irritating us, sending us railing against the government, doctors or sales assistants.
The epidemic is a danger to people and triggers such a defense mechanism. This leaves a part of society at the mercy of emotions and cut off from common sense. They are governed by fear for their life and well-being, which is entirely understandable, while there is also mistrust in the government and the medical system fueled in turn by conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media.
Numbers and statistics are not enough to convince conspiracy theorists even though they speak even more plainly than common sense would.
The numbers tell us that on average 70 percent of people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated. That the grim reaper has come for over 250 coronavirus patients in the last month alone. That by November the disease had claimed over 1,500 lives or 0.12 percent of the population. Those figures would be considerably less tragic if most of us were vaccinated.
The experience of Scotland that has found success with vaccination shows that of the 3.3 million people vaccinated (73.6 percent of the target group) only 0.007 percent or 236 people have died since vaccination began. In other words, fewer people have died in Scotland since vaccines became available than have died in Estonia in just the past month.
If statistics does not have an effect, one can simply take a stroll in Liiva Cemetery in Tallinn where recently thin pine woods have suddenly gotten an underbrush made of colorful wreaths. The latter are not numbers but cover real people, someone's grief.
Myths can both bring people together and divide then into opposing factions. Myths create national identity and history, feed religions, but also superstition and conspiracy theories.
Mythical thinking is so ingrained that already established myths are incredibly difficult to challenge using whichever argumentation. Estonians' myths include the ancient struggle for freedom, seven hundred years of slavery, national awakening, Kalevipoeg, Tammsaare… We would not be who we are without them.
Things are a little bit more complicated when it comes to superstition and conspiracy theories. Whereas we might as well draw an equals sign between them – they feed off people's primal fears and trigger built-in self-defense mechanisms. Some people perceive vaccines as threats, with every theory seemingly confirming these fears falling on fertile soil. One might think that Man can wield reason and education to bring the primal fears of the limbic system under control, but reason switches off once fear or superstition grows big enough.
The Americans used to build nuclear bunkers and stock them with food. The Survival Center has been offering people know-how, training and everything one might need to survive a nuclear, chemical or biological attack since the 1970s. People can rent shelters for weathering climate change, buy equipment for their personal shelter, acquire literature on the credibility of vaccination or a geographical map that shows which parts of the Earth will remain above water as the climate warms.
It is business that feeds off people's fears and superstition, offering know-how and practical solutions with which to assuage them. Because fear and the need for self-defense are unalienable parts of the human psyche, this business will never stop booming.
One Covid myth described by the Alliance for Science portal that promotes scientific thinking supports similar business activity. According to this particular myth, the coronavirus pandemic has been caused by Big Pharma that wants to make people sick to be able to sell them expensive drugs.
This myth is allegedly being promoted by alternative medicine that offers its own miracle pills and elixirs while undermining the credibility of ordinary medicine. Take a pill or choose from a number of other alternative remedies and you will be right as rain! With no need for vaccines!
The portal lists the ten most common conspiracy theories associated with COVID-19. Allow me to give a few more examples.
1. The coronavirus does not really exist and is a conspiracy by the globalist elite aimed at robbing mankind of freedom. Covid is no worse than the flu.
2. COVID-19 is part of Bill Gates' plan to vaccinate the entire population of Earth and in doing so plant digital microchips in people that will monitor and control their behavior.
3. The epidemic was unleashed by the deep state. This myth made the rounds in USA when Donald Trump was president. His supporters were convinced the deep state was using Covid to undermine Trump's authority.
4. The coronavirus epidemic is caused by 5G networks. The central claim of this particular conspiracy theory is that it is 5G electromagnetic radiation making people sick. If not directly then by harming the immune system and making people susceptible to COVID-19.
Constantly poor government
Myths are a part of how mankind functions, but if they are destructive and result in human casualties (coronavirus deaths), they must not be used for political goals. Unfortunately, they are.
The political consensus is always that the incumbent government is bad because negative information is more effective than positive. The negative wakes our threat perception and actives self-defense. That is also why news is mostly negative because the positive fails to capture people's attention. News needs to upset people by tugging at the most primitive parts of the limbic system.
This leaves me, an ordinary person, feeling constantly agitated because there is never a government that I could describe as our government, an Estonian government to represent the interests of the whole of Estonia.
The us-feeling is reserved for those who happen to support the powers that be. It could be felt especially strongly among the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) supporters when the party was a member of the government. The reason their success at taking politics to the streets – torch-lit marches, mass protests, efforts at social media amplification etc.
On the other hand, no other political force has been met with so much criticism and opposition with support from the press. Little wonder then that EKRE politicians borrowed the deep state idea from their American idol D. Trump and carried it over to Estonia, leaving society feeling even more negative.
And so it has happened that a black cat keeps passing between politicians and feeding mutual distrust. Therefore, [PM] Kaja Kallas' thought that there should be consensus in supporting the Estonian healthcare system is timely and relevant indeed. Just as it is with national defense where no one is contesting that Estonia needs NATO membership and defense investments in order to keep its independence.
The statement was made immediately following the October 23 protest meeting held in Freedom Square that clearly had support from EKRE and where the credibility of the healthcare system was called into question, among other things.
Political capital or dirty money?
Therefore, the question is whether it is permissible to collect political capital at the expense of such topics and society's trust – capital built on suffering and death – and the answer is definitely not! It is dirty capital. Dirty money.
It is true that neither the previous government of Jüri Ratas nor the current one of Kaja Kallas has done a particularly good job managing the crisis. The excuse is that the crisis is extraordinary, new and global and one where we lacked experience and ready-made solutions. That said, local handling of problems nevertheless did not rise to a level where criticism would have been out of place.
We have seen incompetence in procuring and storing vaccines, implementing measures to contain the epidemic and finally in the immunization effort the inadequacy of which still leaves us in a critical situation even though the case rate is going down. But the worst aspect has been communication. In other words, the government's positive myth creation to convince the population of the necessity of vaccination.
We need to admit objective criteria that inevitably erode the support rating of any incumbent government. The epidemic at hand can be contained using radical or less radical means.
The former would see a complete lockdown of the country or an emergency situation declared, while the latter is limited more or less to what we have in Estonia today – vaccination certificates, obligation to wear masks, event participant ceilings, testing in schools etc.
One does not have to be a genius to realize that a government that orders very strict measures will not be sticking around for long. However, it is also possible to draw the short stick by preferring more lenient measures as the government can always be accused of not having done enough to contain the epidemic, economic difficulties or lack of necessary support measures.
The old skeletons are also still gathering dust in the corner, to mention the Center Party's corruption cases or its deal with Russia's ruling United Russia party that remains valid because Center has failed to publicly denounce it.
In closing, we will never have a good government if these tendencies are allowed to continue. There will always be a poor government that is constantly taking flak. The result is that I, as an Estonian citizen, constantly feel bad or downright threatened.
I sometimes ask myself whether the government and the entire political elite is even capable of ensuring Estonia's longevity and political stability. Or do the political ambitions of various political forces take precedence? Mutual intolerance of political forces and lack of consensus in important matters (with slashing defense spending as part of budget cuts being discussed) is raising serious questions to that effect, unfortunately.
People often ask "what next?" in such situations. And while answers have been found and action taken in the past, no clear answer is on the horizon today.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski