15. Jul 2020 - Aigi Rahi-Tamm

The emergency situation declared by the Estonian government on 12 March 2020 came to an end on 18 May. The restrictions imposed during the emergency situation were removed while some requirements, especially the 2+2 rule (a requirement to keep a 2 metre distance between people), would remain in force. Relying on the decreasing trends of COVID-19, the three Baltic states were the first in the EU to open their common borders. Estonia was thus able to avoid a major catastrophe. The medical system resisted the stress thanks to the devoted work of the doctors, the quick and decisive steps of the government and the discipline of the population.

At the moment, it is still too early to estimate the full consequences of the Civid-19 crisis. We have survived the first wave of the pandemic, but another wave may be on the way and we are not sure how people will be able to manage the economic crisis that is looming large. The sudden breakout of the pandemic made us all re-estimate our activities and re-organize our thoughts. Fearing for our health and the health of our families, as well as our economic wellbeing, caused helplessness and anxiety. In order to ease the anxiety, various advice was given, including limiting the amount of time spent watching the news and keeping in mind that we have previously lived through difficult times – all crises will end at some point. The government’s special crisis website, which gave advice for maintaining mental health, suggested that people recall situations and measures used to cope with complicated situations in previous times. In fact, during the height of the shutdown the Estonian Literary Museum and the Estonian National Museum called on people to keep a diary documenting their experiences, their personal coping strategies, as well as thoughts, fears and hopes – something that future historians of the crisis could draw upon.  

Memories of past experiences usually arise when the present situation induces them. So it was unsurprising that parallels were first drawn with the 1990s – a time of massive social change and economic hardship. Siiri Oviir, the first minister of social security in the newly independent Republic of Estonia, pointed out that the present period is just as alarming and indefinite as it was 30 years before, yet still insisted that the situations are incomparable.

At the time, people were naked and hungry. … We lived in a constant crisis, both in the economic crisis and in the deficit of basic commodities. … I remember a situation in a cafe where two elderly ladies ordered two cups of coffee and a bun and then shared it. I could see that they were ashamed of this situation. It was difficult to witness it, yet I knew that it was impossible to change something immediately.

In his article of 8 April, Mart Laar, Prime Minister of the Republic of Estonia from 1992–1994 and 1999–2002 described a number of difficulties and dangers into which the crisis might propel people and confessed that he did not know how people might cope with them. However, he argued that “Estonians already have a long-time experience of living in crisis conditions. Thus, we know well that even if the situation is impossible, there are ways to find solutions. The crises have also taught us flexibility and ability to adapt quickly”. He added that it was good when people behaved as directed because this enabled them to come out of the crisis more quickly. He also suggested that today’s problems can be regarded as future opportunities: “in the middle of a crisis you have to keep your feet firmly on the ground but look towards the horizon”.

For a small nation like Estonia, the shared will and knowledge that it has always coped with crisis situations has been an obligatory hope; it has helped to maintain the positive mood. On the other hand, general patterns of popular behaviour can barely be estimated on the basis of these calls to stay positive. Indeed, not everybody followed these new norms. When Kerttu Kirjanen, a young journalist, exposed the diverging opinions and conflict between those who took the matter seriously and those who went out to grill parties with friends despite the prohibition, some comments condemned her for causing panic. At the same time, parallels were drawn with the permanent fight in nature between order and chaos. As the restrictions were eased, people questioned whether the warning delivered by the crisis was too short-lived. The crisis did not restore balance in the world and was not sobering enough to keep people from returning to their pre-crisis habits and conveniences too soon. Ruth Kalda, head of the Institute of General Medicine and Public Health, underlined a major lesson learned – that of staying home when sick. According to her, a new social norm could be implemented to replace the conventional pattern of sick employees present in the workplace – the reasons for such behaviour are not always of an economic nature but result also from social and cultural attitudes. Perhaps the crisis taught us to be more caring and responsible for ourselves and others. Decisions about how to behave will depend on every single person. The following months, especially autumn, will show how ready the population is for change and sacrifice and also how quickly the rapid reaction mechanisms will be ready to engage in the fight against the spread of disease.

Covid-19 not only challenged individual values but also the ability of countries to communicate between each other. At first, the declared ‘war against the virus’ seemed to result mostly in chaos, caused by cancelled flights, closed borders and re-imposed border control. People stranded abroad tried to find opportunities to return to their homeland. Fifty-kilometre-long queues occurred at several Polish border inspection posts where Estonian (and other Baltic) citizens were trapped. As the tension increased, the daily Postimees turned to the Polish government for assistance. On 19 March, an appeal to enable Estonian citizens to return home through Poland covered the entire front page of the newspaper. The short text evoked Estonian–Polish friendship and its historical roots, mentioning, for example, how in 1939 Estonia let the interned Polish submarine Orzeł escape from Tallinn. In his response a day later, Grzegorz Kozłowski, the ambassador of Poland in Estonia, confirmed that there was no doubt about the alliance between Poland and Estonia and solutions would be found for creating transit corridors.

We are united by common historical experience that has shaped our understanding that there exists a possibility of losing freedom – a priceless value. Both the period between the two World Wars and recent history confirm that both our nations feel the similarity of interests and share common values. Poland will never forget the heroic decision taken by Estonia in September 1939 when the Polish submarine Orzeł fled from attack by Germany. … I am convinced that the foundations of Polish–Estonian alliance are sustainable despite the crises that may occur on the regional or global scale.

According to the editor-in-chief of Postimees a step of such popular diplomacy was due to the extraordinary situation. Following that, several transit convoys were organized for the citizens of the Baltic states.

The changes that accompanied the crisis have taught us several lessons. People’s behaviour in these circumstances has varied from self-sacrifice to complete indifference and extreme exclusion. Avoiding the infection increases sensitivity, including prejudice, intolerance, and conservatism. This can probably be felt in many countries. The increased rights of the government to regulate peoples’ behaviour has launched discussions about the need and effectivity of measures protecting and controlling people. Is there a danger of giving up certain freedoms by showing obedience, discipline and flexibility during a fight with the unknown? What seems reasonable to one may seem constraining to the other. When we leave our ‘bubble’ and return to everyday normality each of us has to test certain aspects: how motivated were we to adapt new norms of behaviour and was this due to inner wisdom, habitual experience or imposed measures?

About the author

Aigi Rahi-Tamm is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Archival Studies, Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu.

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