First published on Comment Central
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once coined the phrase “a diamond is a lump of coal that did well under pressure”. When reading an article by the Daily Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey, examining why smaller, poorer nations are faring better in the battle to contain Coronavirus than many of their wealthier counterparts, Kissinger’s quote came back to me as it struck a chord.
Tominey had spoken to the Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia who explained that the number of people in Georgia dying with Coronavirus is very low, not just because of the “early and decisive executive action” taken by the Government but because “Georgians have experienced and overcome adversity throughout history. Both the Government and the Georgian public quickly realised the scale of this threat.”
Looking at the statistics in a many former Soviet states, particularly the Baltic States, Mr Gakharia may have a point. The three Baltic countries have been through difficult times in modern history. Is it because of this that they were far more prepared to deal with a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic?
The Baltic States have a relatively small population (all under 3 million), yet even when you look at deaths of people with Coronavirus per million people, the three countries are nowhere near the utter devastation taking place in Italy, Spain and more recently the United Kingdom and United States. Each of the three countries has suffered fewer than 50 deaths per million people; in contrast the UK has 545 deaths – ten times more.
Estonian politician Raivo Tamm, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Riigikogu, believes the actions taken in Estonia are very similar to those taken elsewhere in Europe, to stay at home, have a one-out one-in policy in shops, stay 2 metres apart – all very similar to what we have experienced in the UK. The only significant difference is that Estonians were immediately encouraged to wear face masks, unlike in the UK (although many people are wearing them).
Mr Tamm also highlighted one stark difference in societal behaviour in Estonia compared with many other countries across the globe. “There was a joke on social media of a before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus photo in Finland, which showed people waiting for a bus in line and standing 2 metres distance from each other – and the same picture before. It is the same in Estonia.”
Jonas Kairys, an Adviser to the Prime Minister of Lithuania, said that it was too early to generalise the reasons behind different national patterns of the pandemic, but he did share some interesting observations, which could shine some light on why Lithuania has remained relatively unscathed by this virus.
He explained that residents of Baltic States are less likely to frequent popular holiday destinations in the Italian Alps, and therefore the import of the disease was less strong. He also highlighted that public health measures (including school closures, the cancellation of public events, and the closure of department stores) started very soon (14th March) after the first fatal cases in Europe had been recorded.
Mr Kairys said another important factor is that the “density of population in the Baltic region is much below that of Central or Southern Europe. For example, there are no cities of one million people plus in the Baltics.”
He also made the valid point that we do not yet know enough about Coronavirus, such as the role of the weather in the spread of the disease. “March average temperature in our region is almost 10 degrees below that in Northern Italy and Spain”, he said.
Lithuanian Minister of Health, Aurelius Veryga, said that the Government was carefully watching the successes and failures of other countries. He said his Government is prepared and has “no illusions that the Coronavirus will pass by Lithuania as a dark cloud”.
Inese Lībiņa-Egnere, a Latvian politician and Deputy Chair of the National Security Committee, agreed with the Georgian Premier’s comments that overcoming difficult times in recent history had played a part in preparing former Soviet Union republics to deal with the emergency.
“On May 4, we celebrated 30th anniversary of the declaration of our independence from the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of our country we founded in 1918. During these 30 years we have had more than one struggle and this will be just one of many that we will overcome. ”Ms Lībiņa-Egnere explained that the Latvian Government carefully followed what had happened in Southern Europe and took the necessary steps to reduce risks to public health at an early stage.
She concluded that while smaller countries are more vulnerable, they are at the same time “more flexible and capable of mobilisation in times of crises”, as was evident during the global economic collapse in 2008.
It is difficult to bundle the three nations into one in regard to how they have successfully tackled the Coronavirus pandemic. There does seem to be some evidence that having a low-density population has helped significantly and that swift decisive early action taken by all three governments has helped to contain the spread.
There does, however, seem to be a trend that former Soviet republics, who now have a democratic system of government (excluding countries such as Russia and Belarus, for example), are tackling the pandemic far better than wealthier states that have not overcome grave challenges in their recent history.