Irja Lutsar: The strategy of a mindless virus better than mankind's best

Citizen of the Year 2021 Irja Lutsar.
Citizen of the Year 2021 Irja Lutsar. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

How has it happened that a mindless virus has managed a better strategy than the combined efforts of the world's experts and top brains? Even though a lot of different approaches have been tried, no one yet knows what works best, Irja Lutsar says in her Citizen of the Year award acceptance speech.

I am very honored to accept the title of Citizen of the Year 2021 and become the 19th person on this venerable list. I would like to thank the people who nominated and those who voted for me.

I am proud to be an Estonian citizen. Estonia regaining its independence is the best thing to have happened to my generation. Special thanks go out to my colleagues in the COVID-19 scientific advisory committee without whom our thorny coexistence with the coronavirus would not have been possible and the title would have gone to someone else.

But I must admit that I am conflicted. While we have spent the last two years combating the virus, this tiny creature than cannot survive without its host has still managed to outsmart us. It has surprised us time and again just when we have started to think we are back in control of the situation.

How has it happened that a mindless virus has managed a better strategy than the combined efforts of the world's experts and top brains? Even though a lot of different approaches have been tried, no one yet knows what works best.

The year 2021 has been one of citizens. The course of the pandemic and the extent of the damage it will cause depends rather on every Estonian and their decisions than the government's rules or the advisory committee's advice.

It has been a year of expectations and hope but also disappointment and loss. The year started on a high note. The first vaccines that had proven highly effective in trials reached Estonia immediately before New Year's Eve.

I remember not being satisfied with the situation where doses where few and decisions needed in terms of who would get the jab. Since early January, I dreamed of a day when we would finally have enough vaccines for everyone, to spare doctors having to decide who qualifies and active citizens maneuvering to get their hands on a dose anyway.

The day dawned sooner than we hoped, while with it came a new problem. Not everyone in Estonia wanted the shot and hopes of immunization helping us overcome the crisis melted like snow in spring. What is worse, a rift was forming between pro-vaccination citizens and those more skeptical, the accused and the accusers. This brought out the coronavirus' ability to function as a social magnifying glass, highlighting problems that had existed long before the virus arrived.

We probably all knew that life was harder in the periphery when compared to the heart of Tallinn or that different communities can lead very different lives in Estonia, while we did not want to admit it. This in turn fueled mistrust in state agencies and experts.

It was no wonder then that people had little faith in vaccines promoted and recommended by the state. Future studies could show whether people give up on immunization out of indifference or whether they really are afraid of side-effects.

The former will become the likelier answer moving forward as extensive use of vaccines means we know a great deal about potential side-effects and how to avoid them. But a society as small as Estonia cannot afford indifference as it is far worse than ignorance and fear. Perhaps we could curb indifference by making every citizen feel important.

The question of why me can't help but come to mind when receiving an award such as this. A lot of people in Estonia have contributed to combating the coronavirus. What is more, the statute provides that the title is awarded for contributing to social cohesion.

Have I managed to add to social cohesion? What I previously said about rifts in society does not seem to suggest so. But perhaps… Despite these rifts, we are an interesting people with a peculiar trait. If we need to pull ourselves together to fight for a common cause, we can. We saw it during the Singing Revolution and we are seeing it now, during the coronavirus pandemic 30 years later.

Let us think back if only to the last few weeks. We had the worst coronavirus infection rate in the world, our hospitals were full, our healthcare workers tired and we were looking at suspending planned treatment and a complete lockdown.

But we managed to avoid this scenario courtesy of efforts made by every single Estonian. Some put on masks despite it feeling disgusting, others canceled parties. Our children were diligent about testing themselves in schools to allow contact study to continue and more than a few people finally decided to get the vaccine shot. What were relatively modest efforts by individuals allowed us to bring the infection rate under control. Most countries have not managed it or dared try.

The important thing today is to maintain the situation. It still requires small steps by everyone. At the same time, we must not forget that Man is in fact not nature's crown and that not everything depends on our actions. We can see the coronavirus conquering Europe and outsmarting people and societies.

The question most often asked by a lot of Estonians is how much longer will the pandemic last. The honest answer is that no one knows today.

That said, while new waves can bring more cases than previously, considerably fewer people end up in the hospital in the age of vaccines. Skillful use of vaccines can help us keep the spread of the virus in check as we can see in Israel. This gives us hope that even if the SARS-CoV-2 virus is here to stay, the diseases it causes are manageable.

But we cannot forget in what is a globalizing world that nothing is over until it is over. Therefore, global solidarity and making vaccines available to people in less developed countries should be every European's duty despite the coronavirus situation remaining relatively calm outside Europe and plenty of problems at home.

I would like to wish everyone a beautiful Citizen's Day and let us be proud of the opportunity to be Estonian citizens.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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