Indrek Kiisler: Why do we still think replacement activity can stop Covid?

Indrek Kiisler.
Indrek Kiisler. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Head of ERR radio news Indrek Kiisler criticizes politicians for failure to think beyond restrictions in efforts to manage the coronavirus crisis.

People returning from abroad are no longer asked where they went and what they saw. Instead, the first question is whether their arrival was subject to checks at the airport. If not, people shake their heads and say that the state is still not working. The effectiveness of the state is in direct correlation with basic monitoring for a growing number of people. Because what is the point of health declarations or face masks if their use cannot be verified.

And indeed, Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani (Center) has been inspired by this praise for "effective" raids. Police officers are storming churches in the middle of services and sending sweaty gym patrons running into the dressing room mid-session to produce their certificates in a situation where they would not have been allowed in without one in the first place. The police are reporting results of raids that found 99 percent of people wear a mask when shopping on social media. Entire teams of inspectors are kept on the payroll to catch a few violators because some people tend to believe the police are the most effective weapon against the coronavirus. More effective than vaccination or staying cautious in some people's minds.

However, this criticism of the caution exercised by the Estonian government pales in comparison to what is happening elsewhere. For example, one of Estonia's neighbors can hardly be described as a free and democratic country anymore.

Latvia has become a paradise for proponents of policed measures as an iron fist is all the country's politicians know. Former President Valdis Zatlers said that the only way to get a Latvian to move is to whip them. Sure enough, Latvia brought everything it had to bear against the third Covid wave: emergency situation, curfew – another full lockdown.

And the result? The wave washed over Latvia and Estonia sporting a similar pattern despite cardinally different restrictions. Latvians were prohibited from walking the streets after 8 p.m. Only essential shops were allowed to stay open during the lockdown. Everything else was closed. Once again, children were sacrificed by closing schools.

In Estonia, the vaccinated majority continued to live as if nothing had happened. Shutting down a country is expensive business for which Latvia is taking out new loans that have sent its public debt soaring. However, more important than that is the damage that has and will likely continue to be done with inane restrictions.

A comparison between the third wave strategies of Estonia and Latvia could be recorded in exhaustive detail as a lesson on the pointlessness of exaggerated and discriminating measures.

In spring, Estonia ordered a full lockdown when the reproduction number R had been falling for two weeks. The virus continued its natural downtrend during the lockdown. However, it afforded fans of active restrictions the chance to claim their strategy worked! Because the 21st century human being is incapable of believing that viruses come in waves and that the best we can do is flatten the curve by a little. And they will keep on coming.

I sincerely commend the current government for not repeating this spring's folly again in autumn. The coronavirus wave abated much more quickly in fall. We managed to prove that people can exercise more caution when needed also in the conditions of fewer measures. While the rowdy anti-vaccination crown remains, they form a tiny part of society and have been paid far more attention than they are worth in the media.

The Estonian government's decision to avoid drastic steps left uneasy the part of people waiting for active administration. Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) was the only one to accommodate them by switching Tallinn schools to remote learning using political newcomer, hospital chief Arkadi Popov. Popov, who ran for the Tallinn city council in Center's ranks, found distance learning to be unavoidable in the capital. Can any of us imagine a school principal organizing the work of a hospital? Surely not. But why then do we believe hospital directors are better than others at running education and society in general?

Some experts admit that the virus will likely continue to spread for a decade. We are looking at a distance that goes beyond a Covid ultramarathon. To go that distance, we need to give up on chaotic temporary restrictions. There is equally little sense in declaring victory over the coronavirus with the end of each passing wave. As was done in Denmark mere months ago. What we need are consistent health behavior rules the necessity of which is understood by most people, which is also when they will be complied with.

A new variant of the virus that spreads faster than its predecessors has come among us and will reach every person sooner or later, experts warn. Is forcing people to stay home for a few weeks and stopping life for a brief moment of any use in this situation? Recent experience suggests it is not.

However, the arrival of the Omicron strain has once again resulted in a fit of panic in Europe to suggest nothing has been learned. Instead of ramping up efforts to administer booster doses, improve availability of rapid tests and prepare hospitals for an inevitable spike in severe cases, politicians, in an appeal to the panicky part of society, have once again set about restricting people's freedom of movement. Both domestically and on borders.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin's struggle for the final communique of the European Council to include a clause allowing member states to require vaccinated people to also produce a negative test result on the border came off tragicomic. This in a situation where Helsinki sports a higher case rate than Estonia does on average and the Omicron strain has become prevalent in the Finnish capital. (The 14-day COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people was 509 in the Helsinki area and 530 on average in Estonia on Sunday – ed.) No virus can be stopped on the border, while the Latvian government has still ordered mandatory testing at Riga Airport from Monday.

But facts are hardly an obstacle for politicians who need to demonstrate taking action. Replacement activity is still activity, with every new wave of the virus confirming the suspicion.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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