Finland during Covid 19
When Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced a state of emergency on 16 March – alongside her five cabinet colleagues (all women, heading five parties in coalition) – there was a sense of national admiration for our youthful 34-year-old premier.
Finland had been well behind every other European country in terms of the Corona epidemic. Yet the government acted swiftly to contain the virus. Borders – land and sea – would be closed as of 18 March. Finnish nationals abroad on holiday were instructed to return home as soon as possible.
No chances were taken. Every aspect seemed to have been well considered: healthcare, education, ‘unemployment’ cover, etc.
I live about 500 kilometres north of Helsinki, in a remote coastal town called Jakobstad (in Swedish)/Pietarsaari (in Finnish). The town has a population of about 20,000. Almost everywhere you turn, you see woodland, predominantly pine, spruce and birch.
Looking north across a spacious garden, the view I behold every day is open woodland by the ‘Old Harbour’, an inlet of the Gulf of Bothnia. This vast green expanse invites you to take exercise, go for walks, jogs and runs with or without the dog along a woodland track about a mile in length. It is inspiring.
The wintry months of March and April gave way to sunny extravagance in May and June interspersed with very occasional but welcome rainfall until my return to England on 16 June.
Back to the state of emergency....
The atmosphere was surreal. Certainly unprecedented. As a language teacher, my courses were ‘terminated’ in mid-March and I applied for ‘unemployment status’. It was a wonderful chance to slow down and take stock of this privileged location.
Rules were established. You were allowed to go out and take exercise once a day. You were advised only to go shopping when it was absolutely necessary.
Every Thursday, the town square was occupied by REKO market vendors who sold natural home grown products: root vegetables, berries, natural fruit juices, honey, etc... The REKO market was normally held every two weeks. But the popularity of organic local food and people’s anxieties about contracting the virus indoors prompted vendors to make weekly visitations as of March.
Queues were formed in the open air. Customers kept two metres apart chatting in local (Swedish) dialect to one another until it was their turn to collect their products having ordered them via Facebook days before. Contactless payments were encouraged increasingly although coins and notes were accepted, provided you had the exact amount to pay.
Meanwhile, customers were greeted by hand sanitizer on entering a supermarket. Which was just as well. Hand gel was quickly sold out soon after 18 March. That was the only instance of panic-buying among locals. Yet word soon spread of the effectiveness of your basic bar of soap to keep germs away. As one of my friends on Facebook put it: SAIPPU ON KUNINGAS; in other words, ‘soap is king’!
As for toilet paper, hardly anyone resorted to buying in excess! Interestingly, I had taken advantage of a special offer on toilet rolls in January. So, I was well prepared in that department.
‘HÅLL DIN AVSTÅND’/ ‘PIDÄ TURVAVÄLI’
At checkout tills, floors were marked with red lines two metres apart to remind customers to ‘keep a distance’ in Swedish and Finnish. When social distancing was enforced, Finns naturally adapted with ease. They are typically more reserved than Brits when socializing with one another.
At checkout tills, staff were protected from potential ‘Corona’ germs by perspex screens and visors. Customers in turn were encouraged to use contactless cards when paying and apply hand sanitizer after collecting their shopping before exiting.
As for masks, they were not used by anyone during the months of March, April and May. It was only when I was due to leave for England that I finally bought a pack of five at ‘Prisma’.
Lockdown? What lockdown?
Lockdown was never enforced to the same extent as in the UK. There was only one instance of lockdown in Finland. That was during late March and early April in Uusimaa/Nyland, the region incorporating Helsinki in the south which recorded by far the majority of Corona cases in Finland.
Prime Minister Marin and cabinet were quick to close off that area to virtually everyone except key workers employed in Uusimaa/Nyland but living outside that area, or vice versa. Checkpoints were established on every road entering the most populous region in Finland.
Churches were among the first public buildings to close by the end of March.
But active church members had the foresight to stream over the Internet various services from different churches in the local area.
These events would comprise no more than ten individuals performing at a distance: a minister, two readers, a warden, a technician and a quartet of singers. These vocalists were the organist, her husband, a soprano and a tenor – me! Two practices beforehand were enough to prepare us to lead the ‘virtual’ congregation!
The soprano quipped, “We should call ourselves The Corona Quartet!”
GLADA VAPPEN! /HYVÄÄ VAPPUA!
Traditionally, on the eve of 1 May there is a great sense of anticipation as residents wish each other the equivalent of ‘Happy Mayday’. In the town centre, a ceremony involving the two local male voice choirs celebrates the placing of a sizeable graduation cap on the bust of the national poet Johan L.
Runeberg (born in Jakobstad in 1804). This is the signal for other graduates to do the same.
This year, however, the ceremony was streamed with only the official speakers present on Runeberg Square.
Nevertheless, ‘Mayday Eve’ reflected the glorious late spring weather in Ostrobothnia!
‘GLADA MIDSOMMAR!’/’HYVÄÄ JUHANNUSTA!’
Finns wish one another ‘Happy Midsummer’ in the days leading up to Friday and Saturday closest to 24 June, the birthday of John the Baptist – hence the name in Finnish. Midsummer’s Day (Saturday) is sacred. The highpoint of six weeks of unbroken light. Everyone is at their summer cottage by the sea or a lake. The town is deserted. Social distancing would NOT be a problem!
Although I would not celebrate Midsummer in Finland this year, I had much to look back on and be grateful for during those twelve weeks from March to June. The weather had been glorious inspiring opportunities to learn new skills, like baking bread, maintaining good form, like exercising in the woodlands, and visiting friends – at a distance!
As I write, a new academic year is already underway.
I returned to Finland on 10 September after almost three months in England. Life is gradually retuning to ‘normal’.
Churches have re-opened their doors to congregants – albeit at a cautious rate. In shops and supermarkets customers are still reminded to keep their distance. Cashiers are still protected by Perspex screens from customers.
As for the mask, no-one’s wearing it.
These extraordinary times have highlighted a great sense of community spirit: a willingness to help the more vulnerable members of society – for instance, by offering to go shopping or collect a prescription for the elderly. That was the case for one of my English conversation students who feared leaving her home in the early stages of the pandemic.
There have been very few cases of the Corona virus in the region of Ostrobothnia, and no Corona-related fatalities recorded in Jakobstad. This stat is a testament to the practical, responsible attitude of Ostrobothnian residents in general. As mentioned earlier, keeping one’s distance comes naturally.
Especially with vast open tracts of woodland on the doorstep...