Why Estonia is dealing with pandemic better than other countries?
Panic, dismay, anger, defiance, fear, despair, doubt, and occasional portions of denial: all of these have been common notes of communication lately, from the news media to private texts.
But some of the messages coming out of Estonia sound discordantly confident. Estonians seem to think they’ve got this: they are not only handling the coronavirus pandemic but also facing the world in which we will live after it’s over.
In many ways, Estonia’s response has looked indistinguishable from that of most European nations. The country has closed its borders, shuttered its schools, and banned entertainment and leisure businesses from operating. The government has pledged to cover the bulk of personal income lost because of the pandemic; it has also been criticised for lacking a coherent strategy for addressing the crisis, including not having a clear and consistent approach to testing for covid-19. Still, with a relatively high rate of infection among European nations—it’s in ninth place as of today, with two hundred and thirty-one known infections per million people—Estonia appears to have one of the lowest levels of panic. Politico is keeping track of panic levels, ranking them on a ten-point scale based on media coverage, panic buying, and other indicators. Estonia’s level of panic is ranked three out of ten (compared to seven in France, which is just above Estonia in the number of known cases per capita; and five in Denmark, whose case number is just below Estonia’s). Estonia may be the nation best prepared for the consequences of the pandemic, both economically and socially. Nathan Heller has written, its economy is bound to tech, its government is digital, and most services in the country either are or can be provided electronically—in fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the extent of Estonian digitisation. People vote online and use digital prescriptions; a single piece of I.D. securely stores each Estonian’s personal information, including health, tax, and police records; one can even establish residency and begin paying taxes in the country digitally—effectively immigrating online. Estonians say that only three kinds of interaction with the state require a person’s physical presence: marriage, the transfer of property, and divorce. In some cases, births had to be registered in person, but this requirement has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ninety-nine per cent of households have broadband Internet connections, and the education system is a world leader in developing and using electronic technologies. In other words, the prospect of having to work, study, and shop online may not require the sort of readjustment in Estonia as many people face elsewhere. The story of how Estonia went digital has been told before. A central role in it belongs to the former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who learned to code when he was a tenth-grader at a high school in New Jersey. Ilves was born in Sweden, grew up in the United States, worked as a psychologist, educator, and journalist, and was asked by the president of Estonia to become the Ambassador to the United States a year after the Soviet occupation of the country ended, in 1992. As a diplomat, Parliament member, and, later, President, Ilves promoted the introduction of computer classes in schools in the nineteen-nineties, the creation of public Internet-access centers throughout the country, and the idea that technological “innovation was possible in a remote backwater of northeast Europe,” as he put it to me when I reached him by direct message and phone last week. (Ilves, whose last Presidential term ended in 2016, is currently at Stanford, where he was sheltering in place along with other Californians when I reached him.) Skype, an Estonian invention, served as the ultimate proof of concept. Estonia declared a state of emergency on March 12th. The next night, two companies, in coöperation with the government, launched a forty-eight-hour idea-collection session, called Hack the Crisis. Five of the ideas would receive startup funds of up to five thousand euros, for immediate execution. “Do not stop at anything,” the organizers wrote. “Think of moonshots. Think of stuff that needs different regulation.” At least two participants proposed writing apps that would connect volunteers with people in need of help during the state of emergency. Another proposal was for an app for wearable devices that would react to risky gestures, such as face-touching. Still another was for a program for “rotating or swapping workforce between companies”—for example, enabling tourism-industry workers to shift to working in e-commerce. The proposal included legislative changes and an online platform for organizing the swaps.
Next month, another private/public consortium, in coöperation with the European Commission and a Singaporean organization, is launching an online accelerator for projects for the crisis and post-crisis world. This one is headlined by the current President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, the first woman and the youngest person ever to hold the job. These programs, explicitly tied to Estonia’s identity as a startup nation, are exercises of the imagination, not merely in reacting to the present crisis but in shaping the future. Estonians have a sort of tradition of imaginative undertakings. In 1989–91, for example, Estonian dissidents were exchanging policy briefs on a post-occupation future before the Soviet Union actually collapsed. What seemed unimaginable to the Soviet regime and many Western observers alike was practically a foregone conclusion for these dissidents. I asked Ilves what created the room for imagination in Estonia. He suggested that it was Finnish television. During the period of Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991, many Estonians were able to rig up receivers to watch broadcasts from their next-door neighbours, which remained unoccupied, albeit terrorised, by the Soviets. Finnish and Estonian languages are mutually intelligible, and this meant that Estonians could watch Finnish news. This wasn’t all, though, Ilves pointed out: they could also watch “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knight Rider,” and other American shows, in English with Finnish subtitles. (This was also a great way to learn English.) Ilves is no fan of American television shows from the nineteen-eighties, but he appreciates what they symbolised for the people watching them behind the Iron Curtain. They meant that an entirely different world was possible. Estonians, it seems, still know that, and this spurs the imagination.