Face masks are mandatory or highly recommended in over 130 countries in the world, and over a hundred prominent academics, (including two Nobel prize winners) have signed a letter calling for masks to be required in public to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. Several studies suggest face coverings - when properly worn - help in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Turkey, which made face masks in shops and marketplaces mandatory last year in May, started distributing them for free to its citizens at the same time. Each citizen can apply for five masks per week. Every south Korean receives 3 PPF3 level protective face masks per day for free from the government. Countries like France and Spain have also dispatched free masks to their citizens.
Finns have had to purchase their masks themselves and it turns out that the government has added the highest possible VAT to the prices.

A shortage of supplies was probably one main reason many officials in different countries, including Finland, hesitated to recommend face-masks for the general public, to make sure there will be enough for health care professionals who needed them even more. This thoughtless and disastrous strategy has had repercussions haunting us to this day.
Finnish officials’ stand was even more problematic. Kirsi Varhiala, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, went on national TV to state that face-masks do not work. This is after the Ministry arranged a press conference and released with fanfare the results of a report it had ordered from a retired professor, concluding that face-masks are useless.

Recently, Prime minister Sanna Marin stated in an interview with YLE that THL (Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare) had told the government that in this situation, mandatory face-masks would only be a cosmetic issue than a solution. The statement caused widespread amazement on social media and citizens, including MPs, demanded that THL would announce its stance on face-masks.
To this THL Twitted that: “It is important to use masks as comprehensively as possible and THL strongly supports mask mandates by different actors based on their risk analysis. On the other hand, a general mandatory mask requirement imposed by the authorities does not, according to the institution, add any significant added value.” The answer, of course also raised eyebrows and caused more confusion for the public.

Last year when the pandemic caught the Finnish government with its pants down, there was an acute shortage of face masks and personal protective equipment, to the extent that President Niinistö had to use his diplomatic leverage to get some masks and personal protective equipment to the country. Later a fiasco came to public knowledge, that National Emergency Supply Agency was scammed by low-level criminals when it made a five million Euro deal for face-masks with a shady beauty clinic in Tallin, Estonia. These could be the storylines of a soap opera or a comical B movie but unfortunately are all true.

The good news was that a couple of Finnish companies were able to restart or modify their production lines for protective face-masks and many of the masks sold in shops in Finland today are also made in Finland. Same companies recently announced that they may have to shut down or decrease production dramatically as the demand for their products is decreasing, mainly due to cheaper competition from abroad.
Any sensible government would subsidise domestic face-mask production, but instead, the Finnish government is adding 24% taxes to prices already deemed too high by consumers. Even though self-evident, it is important to reiterate that the VAT, does not benefit the producers or the retailers, but is taken from consumers’ purse directly to the government’s account.

Despite all the messy communication from the authorities, today most Finns are wearing masks. As always, when there is no clear leadership, different actors take matters into their own hands. Now the Finnish Railroads VR and the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority HSL have both made use of face masks for their passengers mandatory, and others will follow.

After 13 August 2020, when the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare issued their recommendation for wearing masks in public transport, employees who wear a face-mask in public transport during their commute and purchase the masks themselves, can deduct the cost of the masks in their taxation as travel expenses up to €2 for each commuting day. Employers can also provide face-masks to employees tax free if it’s need for their work. This tax return however leaves every one who is not a salary earner to pay for their masks themselves and does not address the VAT issue.

Prescription drugs, health care, dental care and social work are tax-free in Finland. It is not clear why protective face-masks in a pandemic are not. To give you an idea of how idiotic adding VAT to face-masks in a pandemic is; here are some products and services that are tax-free in Finland:

Rehabilitative massage
Services in the fields of education, basic education, universities and vocational training
Banking and Financial Services
Insurance and related services
Artists' fees and certain expenses
Professional shipping vessels, including labour input related to these vessels
Sales of member magazines and targeted magazines (for non-profit organisations)
Sweepstakes and games
Sale and rental of real estate and condominiums
Universal postal services
Bond and Security trading
Additionally, groceries, restaurant food (not including alcohol), catering, feed, and drinking water have a reduced 14% VAT and movie tickets, sporting events, sports services, amusement parks, zoos, museums, books, medicines, taxi services, buses, hotels (accommodation services), ports, royalty, TV licenses and magazines subscriptions have a reduced 10% VAT.

So why does the Finnish government tax domestically produced face-masks as much as any other non-essential product? Based on the chaotic and clumsy track record of its policies so far, this is also probably based on oversight, and it is hard to imagine that it will be corrected any time soon.

Alexis Kouros
Helsinki Times