Vaasa University has shifted to remote teaching

David Kirp

 Vaasa, which bills itself as the “happiest city in the world,”  becomes a coronavirus epicenter.

The lively city of Vaasa, pop. 66,960, boasts on its website that it is the happiest city in the happiest country in the world. To claim bragging rights, it has recruited a happiness researcher who is distributing happiness tips and organizing happiness lectures. 

But Vaasa is a very unhappy place these days, for it has become the country’s latest coronavirus hotspot. Nearly a third of Finland’s recent cases have occurred there, and that number continues to mount. 

The reason is simple—last month hordes of students returned to the University of Vasaa, and like students worldwide, they partied heartily, first on the campus and later at local nightclubs. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

“Initially, a few [students] unknowingly carrying the virus spread it, after being in close contact with others at the student party. That is why a strong local epidemic came here,” explained Heikki Kaukoranta, head of the lab at Vaasa’s central hospital. 

This outcome is predictable—the wonder is that it hadn’t already happened at other universities. 

Since August, when the fall semester began at some American universities, undergraduates have behaved the same way, with the same result. These students acted as if COVID didn’t exist, and there was no responsible adult in the room telling them to behave otherwise. Now the University of Vaasa, like many U.S. institutions, has temporarily shuttered its campus and switched to virtual learning. 

“We will make it by being patient, responsible and acting safely," assured Rector Jari Kuusisto. But this was a disaster that should never have happened.

Cross your fingers that the powers-that-be at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) get the message. 

There were 2035 new cases in the most recent two-week period—that’s more than double the number during the previous two weeks. 

Statistics can be numbing, but consider this alarming fact—the daily increase in COVID-19 cases is now as high as in April, during the height of the epidemic, and the situation keeps getting worse. 

Then, a national emergency was declared. Now there’s only a “recommendation” to wear a mask on public transport and crowded indoor spaces.” 

The good news is that the number of mask-wearers increases daily. But that’s not enough. Finns obey the rules, and if masks were required, you’d immediately see everyone wearing one.  

When the government announced that restaurants, bars and nightclubs must close at 1 AM and couldn’t serve alcohol after midnight, owners lamented that the new rule would be “the last nail in the coffin”—an unfortunate metaphor under the circumstances.  However, cutting back opening hours is only a half-measure. Because crowded bars and restaurants are the biggest source of new COVID hotspots—that is the Vaasa story—to keep coronavirus in check, the maximum number of patrons at these establishments must be reduced. The impact will be evident in just a couple of weeks.

I understand that people don’t want to turn the clock back and would be reluctant to accept a return of restrictions. I understand that the political unanimity of March may not be repeated in October. And I appreciate that tighter restrictions inevitably have economic consequences. But quick, decisive action can turn the tide, and in a relatively short time we can be back to something akin to normal. At the first sign of a hotspot, contact tracing can stop the spread of coronavirus in its tracks.

New Zealand has shown the way. Last summer, the country thought it had eliminated coronavirus, but in August an outbreak occurred in Auckland, its biggest city. The response was swift—the government reimposed a strict lockdown, wiping out the virus with a swift, science-based policy. 

What Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls the “go hard, go early” strategy worked—the lockdown was lifted a week ago, after no new cases were reported during the most recent ten-day period. Life there has returned to normal, and economic activity is in full swing. 

There are, to be sure, big differences between the two countries—though Finland is relatively isolated from the rest of Europe, New Zealand has had an easier time keeping COVID at bay because it is an island nation. Still, the Kiwis have demonstrated that a rapid, strong response is the best way to halt the spread of COVID 19. 

Auckland or Vaasa? Government policy will determine which path Finland takes. 

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley and a regular contributor to the Helsinki Times. He has permanent resident status.

Images: Lehtikuva