What problems does Finland face?

Why Finland is getting through the Corona crisis so well

Helsinki - First of all, I'm looking for a hairdresser in Helsinki who can cut my hair without an appointment. Because being in Finland these days means: diving into a piece of normal life. The museums are closed, the public swimming pools, saunas and even the libraries. Otherwise Helsinki has long been open again, much more open than Berlin. In fitness studios you can see people pedaling on their bikes, you can buy gym shoes or wool for knitting in shops, and you can also go out for a beer in the evening. The number of infections is also incredibly low. The incidence is well below 50 in most regions. So far, 655 people in Finland have died with or from Covid-19. In Germany more than 53,000. Compared to the population, that is about six times as many deaths.

How does it work? Is it the policies? What else could it be?

My search for clues begins in the north of Helsinki, in the Meilahti Clinic, where I meet Asko Järvinen, one of the country's leading infectiologists - a kind of Christian Drosten of Finland, at least in terms of his media presence. You can see him on TV almost every day with his side parting and black round glasses, and now he is sitting in a conference room and tells how it all started on January 2, 2020, when Finland reported its first Corona case. A Chinese tourist up in Lapland, of all places, at the end of the world.

When the first Finns were infected with corona a month later - people returning from a skiing holiday in Tyrol - Järvinen was one of those people who were sitting at a table with politicians. At first it was just a matter of canceling large events and school trips. But politics and science agreed that something had to be done quickly. On March 6, Prime Minister Sanna Marin imposed a radical two-month lockdown - one or two weeks earlier than other Nordic countries such as Norway and Denmark. In addition, the Social Democrat had the region around the capital Helsinki cordoned off, no one was allowed in, no one out. The police and the military monitored compliance.

Early and radical - this is also considered a recipe for success in Asian countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea. Taiwan even ordered health checks for passengers arriving from Wuhan, the city where the pandemic arguably began around the world, as early as late 2019.

"It was a bit dictatorial," says Pekka Jousilahti from THL, the national institute for health and welfare, comparable to the German Robert Koch Institute. Jousilahti, black glasses, bald man, is sitting in the café of a shopping center and wears a mask, like the young man with a computer at the next table and the two friends behind him. There is no mask requirement in Finland. Most people wear them anyway. Here in the department store, on the bus and on the train, you hardly ever see anyone without.

Hardly any corona protests, hardly any corona deniers

In Finland, recommendation and command are synonymous, and that was the case long before Corona. Many Finns are fed up with the measures. But there are no “lateral thinkers” demos, there were not even protests when the city limits were closed. Pandemic deniers exist, but they rarely get beyond the internet. And just as little as the Finns protest against measures, they have no word for “anti-vaccination”. When opponents of the Corona measures gathered in front of the Berlin Reichstag in November, only incomprehensible comments were seen and heard in the Finnish media.

That has to do with the fact that, unlike in Germany, there is a historically grown basic trust in the authorities - what the government says will be right. The Finns like to have everything under control. They love order and rules that they can adhere to, they don't go through red lights, they pay their taxes well, they are at the bottom of the global corruption index, and their national debt is always EU-compliant. Two thirds are generally supportive of the government, the highest figure in the EU after Luxembourg.

The Finns have good reasons to trust their government. Prime Minister Marin's pandemic motto: transparent communication, clear decisions. The bill largely paid off. “Of course we were wrong too,” says Pekka Jousilahti. “But we can also correct ourselves.” He talks about consultations that went off so harmoniously that it is hard to believe. There was only one dispute: in October, the opposition tried in vain to withdraw confidence in the Minister for Family and Care, Krista Kiuru, because she had only recommended masks in August, not from the beginning. And only now are they gradually being introduced in schools.

Naturally good at social distancing

Either way, most people keep their distance anyway, which is also part of the culture here, one of the manners. A friend later told me a joke: “Moans a Finn: How long should this go on with this two-meter safety distance? When can we finally get back to our four meters? "

Finns are naturally good at social distancing. “The Finnish man doesn't speak and he doesn't kiss,” is the saying. Even if that's not always the case, the Finns have a geographic advantage when it comes to keeping their distance. While there are 235 inhabitants per square kilometer in Germany, there are 18 in Finland, another EU record. And there are fewer metropolitan areas. But of course there are, the bigger cities, lots of people who meet. And Helsinki reopened after a two-month lockdown.

The Finns are also well organized. Take vaccinations, for example: there are vaccination stations, there are staff, everything is prepared, says Pekka Jousilahti, even if the distribution of the vaccine in the sparsely populated country is a challenge: "As long as there is enough vaccine, we can vaccinate anyone." Likewise, there are enough tests for everyone, and they have been there from the start. The first drive-in test center was opened in the second week of March 2020. Everyone got and gets their test, free of charge, the state pays for it. “Even if you just have a cold,” says a friend. So far there are around 500 tests for every 1000 inhabitants.

But there were also tests in the nursing homes right from the start. The Finns are the oldest people in the EU, and here, too, most of the corona deaths are well over 80. The staff wore masks, even if they were only scarves at first. As soon as there is even one positive case, all residents and all staff are tested. The Finns were also brutal when it came to home policy: The Berlin homes opened again to visitors at the beginning of May, the Finnish only opened in June after three months.

There were travel restrictions in the summer - now they have been tightened again

In July the numbers were almost zero. But the Finns were not dazzled by their bright summer. As a precaution, the government severely restricted travel options, the Finns spent the summer as usual in their huts at one of the more than 188,000 lakes in the middle of the forest, the nearest neighbor hundreds of meters away, the nearest supermarket often a half or three-quarters hour drive. The Germans were vacationing in Turkey or the Balkans, and while they were shedding jobs at the health departments, the Finns had overtaken them in creating testing capacity.

There is also the follow-up: Of course, it often takes too long for an effective quarantine here too. But at least those affected and their contact persons will be informed as quickly as possible by phone and letter. This alone employs 200 people in Helsinki. "Dentists or dental assistants, for example, stepped in because hardly any more patients came," says Asko Järvinen, the infectious agent. Maybe out of fear, maybe so as not to make a mistake. “The Finns like to exceed the requirements.” According to studies, the fact is that mobility fell by a third even after the lockdown. “Because people don't dare to go to cafes or to the hairdresser's.” I really did find a hairdresser who spontaneously cuts my hair. On the other hand, cafes or lanes are not empty. Perhaps the impression is also wrong - you are hardly used to people in public anymore.

Digitization improves acceptance of homeschooling and home office

More than half of the 5.5 million Finns have installed the Corona app - data protection is not a big issue here. This, too, has a tradition in a country where everyone knows everyone and where the hierarchies are flat and small talk is more likely to ask where someone comes from than what they do for a living. Anyone who wants to can see at any time how much taxes the neighbors or bosses are paying. And this basic trust has carried over into the digital world. For ten years now, all health and social data of citizens have been saved on an electronic health card, paper is out. Finland was recently at the top of the “EU Digital Economy and Society Index” in all areas examined: human capital, use of Internet services, integration of digital technology, digital public services.

And that makes a difference: Digitization helps with the acceptance of the Corona measures. Even if the schools were closed and some of them are still there, there is a difference to Germany, to Berlin: It works. Digitized work is the top priority, and schools get money for it. There is a nationwide internet connection, all households and schools are equipped with devices, students without a laptop can borrow it from the school. Teachers and parents have been using Internet platforms for almost 20 years. "Parents shouldn't be teachers with us," says Tanja Huutonen from the Finnish embassy in Berlin: "They should make sure that the tasks are done, but they shouldn't teach."

Online lessons mean: more concentration, less bullying

Every school day starts at nine with a video chat, then the teachers send assignments and feedback. They follow up when the tasks don't come back. If in doubt, the parents are notified and school social workers are called in for support. Sometimes the teachers even exceed their duties, says a friend, mother of a 16-year-old daughter: eight hours of video lessons together every day, only short breaks.

Parents say that their children are actually very happy to finally be able to study in peace and not to be distracted by classmates. And that is also a fact: Many children and young people are better off because they are no longer bullied by their classmates - a big problem in Finland.

And while the children are being taught online, the parents also work at home: Home office is a must these days and is probably one of the reasons why the lives of 23 percent of Finns have improved as a result of Corona, according to a survey by the EU Parliament: Because many are up living in the country, long commutes are no longer necessary. This saves time and brings peace, especially since at least the small children are still in daycare.

Of course, the Corona measures still hit many hard. Theaters, concert halls and museums are closed and social contacts are missing. Why there is a protest: The working group “Eroon koronasta” (“Away with Corona”) is in favor of a tough but short shutdown. One of their arguments against a tough lockdown light is mental health problems. Statistics from the national police authority show how dramatic the situation is: The number of homicides rose by around a quarter in the past year - although it had declined in previous years. The authorities suspect that the contact restrictions are to blame: People are losing their jobs, are stressed, drink more and use more drugs. The Ministry of Health recently found record levels of amphetamines in a study of drug residues in Helsinki wastewater. And part of the truth is that cancer patients wait twice as long for treatment as before, and the queues are getting longer.

The fact that Corona reveals, for better or for worse, what was there before in Finland is noticeable again when you return to Berlin: In Finland at the airport, it first went to passport control, EU or not, there were pages of information material . On hygiene measures, quarantine rules, the free on-site PCR test - and on E.T., a white Swiss Shepherd who works shifts here at Vantaa Airport: one hour sniffing, one hour break. E.T. previously sniffed out hospital germs and has now been trained to be a corona sniffer dog together with three others. According to project managers, the dog tests are 94 percent correct so far, but not yet official. The city pays, and the initiators at the University of Helsinki hope to have enough data together by early summer to be able to replace expensive PCR tests.

Back in Berlin: At the airport, nobody cares where you come from, where you are going. No evidence of tests, no information. Just an elevator to the train tracks that doesn't work.