With the first wave of coronavirus having receded into history, Finns are partying like there’s no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow—it’s called autumn—and once again it’s time to pay attention to the pandemic that isn’t going away.
July 1st was an ordinary summer day. In midafternoon, I walked a couple of kilometers to meet a friend at a wine bar in Kamppi. When it started to drizzle, everyone who had been sitting on the terrace fled to the bar’s intimate interior. It was still raining when we finished our wine, and I decided to take a tram home.
Crowded wine bar, crowded metro—but like everyone else I saw that afternoon, I was not wearing a mask. Despite the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, I had written an opinion piece decrying the Finnish government’s Trump-like vacillation about masks, I had left mine at home.
I am laser-focused on the pandemic, and my carelessness was a megawatt-lightbulb moment. It brought home how much I wanted to believe that COVID-19 was a nightmare from which I could finally awake, how badly I wanted to wind the clock back to a time when we lived a normal life.
Now everyone seems to be thinking the same way. While the rules implementing the Emergency Powers Act in March were never as constricting as those in other European countries, nonetheless they remade our lives. We lived in quasi-isolation—“socially distancing,” in the deep sense of that gawky phrase—and that exacted a heavy toll. “Shelter in place” is a survival strategy, a genteel imprisonment and not a recipe for living. Finns chafed—in a survey of EU countries, they were the likeliest to say they were “frustrated” by the restrictions.
Now that the emergency decree is no longer in force and the regulations rescinded, we are once again living a normal, COVID-free life. The shops are humming, and bars and restaurants are cheek-by-jowl packed (try getting a reservation at one of the trendier spots). Cinemas and karaoke clubs are back in business, and music festivals, drawing crowds of thousands, are on the horizon. Tourists throng Market Square like a gaggle of geese. While Finns usually keep their distance from strangers, famously situating themselves as far as possible from one another at tram stops, the markers in stores and cafes designating the proper distance between customers often go ignored. Only a handful of people wear masks, and I get stares when I don one.
Coronavirus is not on most Finns’ minds. The war against COVID-19 is over, people believe, and Finland won. But that is just magical thinking.
Finland caught a break in the first wave of the pandemic; other European nations fared much worse, despite imposing tougher sanctions. Since the end of May, the number of new cases has been so low—three or four a day—that it has been easy to ignore the pandemic.
Unfortunately, this is no longer true. On July 24, only five new cases were reported. By last Friday, this number had ballooned nearly 600 %, to twenty-nine cases.
“COVID-19 is a marathon, and we have only run the first mile,” a public health expert told me, and the situation will almost certainly get worse during the coming weeks. With summer vacation over, people are returning from trips to hot-zone countries like Spain, and these travelers account for some of the new cases. Offices are open again, and fewer people will be able to work in the safety of their homes. Staying outdoors during these balmy August days, can keep coronavirus at bay, but soon enough the weather will drive us inside, where the virus can better work its mischief.
Students are starting school, and although contact tracing in the primary schools last spring found little evidence that young children infect others, there is solid evidence that middle and high school students are more prone to contract and spread the virus. University students are also returning, and only the terminally naïve could believe that, amid their partying, they will keep coronavirus foremost in mind.
When COVID-19 went on its spring rampage, Finns accepted the necessity of a lockdown, rewriting the script of their lives. Here’s the million-euro question—if the number of coronavirus cases reaches a level not seen since the spring, and the government once again asks everyone to put their normal lives on hold, how will people respond?
David Kirp, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a regular contributor to the Helsinki Times, is a permanent resident of Finland.