Pandemic ‘pressure points’ shape Government talks on easing restrictions

Experts warn that keeping restrictions in place too long does more harm than good - to society, the economy and public health.

File picture of (L-R) Maria Ohisalo (Green), Sanna Marin (SDP), Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) at briefing in Helsinki 15th April 2020 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

As the Finnish Government meets midweek to begin talks on when and how coronavirus restrictions might be eased, their discussions are being shaped by a number of pressure points.

Ministers are walking a tightrope between ending the current restrictions too early, or keeping them going to long. There are risks with both strategies.

A new report this week from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL highlights that the epidemic “has slowed sharply in Finland, and the spread of the epidemic is slower than in the neighbouring countries.”

It sounds like a good assessment, but it’s a double-edged sword.

“Such a sharp slowdown significantly prolongs the duration of the epidemic and may, if it continues for a long time, pose a risk of a later major epidemic” the report concludes.

Beyond the scientific and medical advice to consider, there are pressures from teachers; parents; the business community; unions; political rivals and even the Finnish public to consider: a few weekends of good weather and restrictions or not, increasing numbers of Finns will start heading for their summer cottages in defiance of official advice.

There’s also pressure indirectly from abroad, as people start to see different restrictive measures unpicked in other countries, then begin to ask why those aren’t happening in Finland too.

All of these factors have a bearing on the decisions ministers take in the coming days.

File photo of tables & chairs in a classroom / Credit: iStock

Education: will schools open this academic year?

It’s a point of national pride in Finland that even during the Winter War and Continuation War schools remained open. So it was a shock to introduce distance learning almost overnight as classroom education disappeared for most students.

There’s a mix of messages from parents: some who want to re-open the schools, and others who want to keep them closed for now.

The Trade Union of Education in Finland OAJ has a firm policy line that schools shouldn’t be opened again too early, while Education Minister Li Andersson said this week that decisions to impose restrictions on schools were taken on the recommendations of health authorities at that time “and this will also be done with regard to the possible lifting of restrictions.”

“Decisions are made with care for the safety of pupils, students, teachers and other staff” Andersson adds.

The decision to close most classrooms was taken under exceptional circumstances and Finland has a very rigid legal framework about what can and cannot be done in this area. However there are options for municipalities to take separate decisions based on the Infectious Diseases Act, and their own particular set of circumstances.

File picture of MP Iiris Suomela (Green) / Credit: MP

“Having a right to education is a basic right, and a strong right for a child” says MP Iiris Suomela (Green).

“We already noticed that remote teaching doesn’t quite fulfill that right or that need, so it’s important to balance those rights with everyone’s right to stay alive and to get the healthcare they need. The vulnerable groups are the first to be considered when it comes to easing restrictions” she tells News Now Finland.

Centre Party Parliamentary Group Chairman Antti Kurvinen represents a more rural constituency and says he hears both sides of the argument from parents he’s in contact with

“It’s been nice to have families in the homes, but now there is work to do, and too many team meetings at home. The school work is too much for parents, and they’re hoping the schools start again. But also a lot of families think it’s too early to open schools, and they’re afraid their kids will bring coronavirus home from school if they’re open” he says.

File picture of small business and economy / Credit: iStock

Business community pressure over the economy

Another major pressure point comes from the business community.

Restaurants, bar and cafe owners still don’t have clarity exactly how they’ll be recompensed for being forcibly closed until the end of May, nor how much they’ll receive.

The Central Chamber of Commerce Kauppakamara is calling for restrictions that are detrimental to the economy to be lifted – including opening primary schools, and restaurants in some parts of the country.

CEO Juho Romakkaniemi, who is closely aligned with the opposition National Coalition Party, says the government’s actions during the coronavirus crisis have been “in the right direction, but not effective enough.”

Kauppakamari wants to see less bureaucracy when it comes to companies applying for the various grants and loan options which the government has made available; they’re also calling for the state to temporarily take over a range of employer contributions like YEL and health and unemployment insurance, to ease the financial burden on companies.

“Of course entrepreneurs and the financial sector, that is an area where the lockdown is costing companies a lot, and I know there are more and more opinions among the financial sector that we should start to re-open Finland” says the Centre Party’s Antti Kurvinen.

File photo of woman holding elderly woman’s hand / Credit; iStock Photo

Comparing other countries, and concerns over elderly people 

It’s inevitable – not to mention something of a national pastime – for Finns to look at what is happening in neighbouring countries and wonder why we’re not doing the same. That happened before the government announced broad restrictions as well – at the time, quite many opposition politicians and social commentators asked why was Finland not imposing restrictions sooner, like Norway, Denmark and other European countries?

This week Denmark opened up primary schools again, while Estonia is allowing sports and hobbies to take place in groups of up to ten people from Monday, so the calls get stronger again – why is Finland not acting sooner to remove the restrictions?

“International comparisons are difficult because Finland is quite different from densely populated countries, but then again we have cities that are quite densely populated and there could be valid comparisons” notes Green politician Iiris Suomela.

“It would be silly to have a nationwide ban on going outdoors for example, but in cities there is a reason to be concerned about Vappu coming up, because there is a strong tradition there” she adds.

File picture of Antti Kurvinen MP, Centre Party Parliamentary Group leader / Credit: Keskusta

Antti Kurvinen says we need to also think about elderly people and the impact this is having on them when it comes to easing restrictions again.

“There hasn’t been much discussion about the anxiety among older people. Quite many have their spouse in elder care homes or hospital and can’t care for them” he says.

“One constituent, an old lady in her 80s wrote to me that her husband is very ill and she hasn’t been able to meet him for three weeks”

“These are really sad situations because if your family member is going to die, if they are in a terminal situation, and you are not able to visit them that’s another point that is slowly putting pressure on the decision makers.”