Audiences in the football national league match PK-35 Helsinki vs HJK at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on August 19, 2020. Face-masks were hard to find. Lehtikuva

David Kirp

 Memo to government: all hands on deck in the campaign to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

Most Finns returned from their summer holidays at the beginning of the month. So did the politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom enjoyed a long vacation. 

But coronavirus doesn’t take a vacation.

In bone-dry prose, THL (the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare) reports the sobering news: 137 new cases were diagnosed between August 5th and 11th. That’s twice as many as the last week of July. 

Although Finland is doing well when compared to most countries, the trend is alarming. It’s a near-certain bet that things will get worse during the imminent second wave. Travelers who spent their holidays on the beaches of Spain, where corona is rampant, are back. People are leaving the safety of their homes and returning to their offices. Students are starting the autumn term. The fine weather we have been enjoying keeps us outside, but all too soon we will retreat indoors, to the crowded bars and restaurants that are prime breeding grounds for coronavirus.

The government has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to combat the pandemic—conducting more tests and contact tracing, relying on groundwater studies to pinpoint hotspots, prohibiting visitors from countries where the rate of infection is unacceptably high, creating an app to inform users that they encountered someone who tested positive, recommending that people work remotely and wear masks. 

While these are smart moves, unless they get lots of publicity they won’t do the trick. We all need to adjust to the new reality—and the government must do a better job of communicating the urgency of the situation. Otherwise, coronavirus won’t be kept in check—just look at what’s happening across much of Europe, where COVID-19 is surging.

All hands on deck—to underline the seriousness of the threat, Prime Minister Sanna Marin and other ministers, as well as top public health officials and medical experts, should deliver regular and well-publicized updates. Powerful messaging, wherever people get their news—in print, on television and radio, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—is essential. 

A recent tweet from the Prime Minister delivers a familiar civics lesson: “According to the constitution, everyone has the right to leave the country and a Finnish citizen always has the right to return to the country. Some have also traveled to countries with a high-risk situation. We all pay the bill. Freedom includes responsibility. This is good for everyone to remember.” This is too timid to be meaningful (a Finnish friend predicted that people will remember the “constitutional right” and forget the rest).

These messages should not come across as nanny-state-nagging. To grab people’s attention, they have to entertain as well as enlighten. Here’s a suggestion—ask a PR firm to outline a campaign. I bet that, because the cause is so life-and-death important, the firm would do it free.

 “The second wave of the new coronavirus has already hit Finland,” emphasizes Juha Tuominen, CEO of HUS (the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa), underscoring the imminent danger. “If we continue on the current track, we’ll have a problem on our hands in a month. We have to do something to break the upward trend.” How everyone acts and the actions that Finnish leaders take—right now—will make all the difference. 


David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California and a regular contributor to the Helsinki Times, is a permanent resident of Finland.