Imagine the popular reaction if Sanaa Marin delivered this speech.
What is the current situation regarding coronavirus? What does the future look like? And what is the government’s strategy?
You deserve clear answers to these questions. And you deserve to understand why the recent spread of COVID demands that we take action.
As we all remember, when the pandemic began in March, we were united in our response. When we decided that a State of Emergency, the first since the Winter War, was necessary, the vote in Parliament was unanimous. When we decided that, to contain coronavirus, we had to isolate Uusima—an unprecedented decision—there was no dissent.
These measures worked because you trusted the government and public health officials to do the right thing.
You changed how you lived your lives.
Never before had you been told not to congregate, to keep your children home, to stop going to museums and restaurants, bars and swimming pools. Never before had you been asked to work at home. Never before had you been obliged to keep Vappu celebrations virtual.
You rose to the challenge. That’s how Finland kept coronavirus at bay.
By the summer, we were living normal lives once again. We all hoped that the worst was behind us. However, the government understood that COVID would almost certainly make a comeback in the autumn.
We should have broadcast that message. We should have tempered optimism with caution. We should have had an action plan in place. But we didn’t.
I take full responsibility—as the expression goes, the buck stops here.
Now the number of coronavirus cases keeps increasing. Day by day, week by week, the situation is getting worse. More new cases are being recorded than in April, during the height of the pandemic. The number of people who are hospitalized has doubled in the past two weeks
What is happening in Vaasa should be a warning for all of us. Until recently, that city had almost no COVID cases. A few weeks ago, students returned to the university. They behaved as university students always behave—they held parties on campus and went to nightclubs.
Today, Vaasa is Finland’s COVID hotspot.
I don’t blame the students. We should have said, plainly and simply, that the partygoers they were courting danger. Fortunately, other universities have not experienced similar outbreaks, but we can’t always rely on good fortune.
The statistics tell us we need to act, swiftly and decisively, in order to end this latest outbreak. Otherwise, the virus will spin out of control.
The science is clear. Close person-to-person contact, especially indoors, spells danger. Large gatherings multiply the odds of infection. Social distancing, handwashing and hand sanitizer are essential.
So are masks.
Last April, the Ministry of Health of Health and Social Affairs told you not to wear masks. At the same time, the director of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) said the opposite—people should wear cloth masks in public places to protect others.
The Ministry’s official position was that wearing a mask was a bad idea because you would not know how to put one on. That was a mistake on our part. Our public health experts should have told you the right way to put on a mask and how to maintain it, just as they offered instructions about coughing and using hand sanitizers.
My biggest regret is that, in providing inaccurate advice about masks, we created needless confusion. What is worse, we risked losing your trust, the nation’s biggest asset in the fight against coronavirus.
I pledge that, on my watch, such a blunder will never be repeated.
I need to be crystal clear—it is essential that everyone wear a mask. Doing so will protect all of us.
Until now, we have relied on making recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19., but this approach is not working. Despite these recommendations, masks are the exception, and bars and restaurants are jammed—that’s why, day by day, the situation continues to get worse.
Today I am introducing legislation to restrict the number of people in bars and restaurants, limit the size of public and private events and require that masks be worn in crowded spaces. Once again, I urge people to work from home.
In Spain, France, Belgium and the UK, the number of cases is mushrooming and governments are once again imposing lockdowns. We will not go that route.
A lockdown is unsustainable. What’s more, it is not necessary. We can learn from South Korea, where universal mask-wearing, limits on crowds, contact tracing and quarantine and isolation guidance have done the job.
I know that the new rules will cause hardship to restaurants and bars, and that some of you will lose your jobs. I deeply regret that, but doing nothing will only make things worse. A short-term sacrifice will pay off in long-term economic growth, fewer COVID-19 cases—and fewer deaths.
Surveys tell us that Finland is the happiest country in the world. Let’s be the smartest country as well.
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.