Before pondering on what awaits us after COVID-19, we need to answer the question of how we are going to get out of this mess. Only then can we begin considering when this will happen, and, ultimately, what awaits us afterwards, Gabrielius Landsbergis, Chair of the Seimas Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrat Political Group, leader of the opposition writes.
We all want the crisis to end as soon as possible. For medical staff, fighting on the new frontline of the war with the virus, and for most of us locked down at home in an effort to telework for three weeks now, time appears longer than it really is and each new day will soon seem to be a week long. However, the extension of the quarantine by a mere few weeks at a time should be sending a sign of hope that we will not remain quarantined for long.
Donald Trump said he hoped to see churches packed on Easter Sunday all over the US. After criticism from the epidemiologists, he never repeated this thought again. Nevertheless, signals like this seem to indicate that, in a couple of weeks, the last patients should recover and our lives should come back on track again before long. What is an expert take on how countries are going to achieve this?
Testing, testing, and testing again
Germany, alongside South Korea and island countries, such as Iceland, are expecting to test the entire population and may go as far as providing the tested citizens with immunity passports, like Germany. This would surely ease the strain of the quarantine on national economies. Why is testing needed? Because even a single asymptomatic carrier could potentially cause a new outbreak of the pandemic, once the quarantine rules are relaxed. Notably, up to 60 % of all the infected people may be asymptomatic carriers. Therefore, South Korea puts people to the test by their thousand, even though the acute phase of the crisis is over.
The situation in Lithuania, in comparison to the abovementioned countries, is complicated. The need for testing has long been denied. The most probable reason was the simple lack of readiness for the testing, and another one might have been the lack of awareness of the importance of the testing in the first place. Testing seems to be in place already. However, its scope is still meagre, given the estimated spread of the virus. The whole testing exercise is marred by trust and transparency issues, such as the occasional loss of samples, labs going out of operation all of a sudden, and so on.
Unless an essential change happens, we should hardly expect testing of the entire population, let alone double testing of all the residents, by PCR tests first and by the fast serology test next, to detect past exposure. For Lithuania, as for other countries with a similar stance, this may mean that we will be left with new potential triggers of the virus, once the quarantine rules are relaxed, because we simply fail to detect and isolate all the infected residents and incomers from abroad.
Just how long can the global economy sustain the quarantine is anyone’s guess. A month of quarantine puts a huge strain on the economy, two months bring the economy to its knees, and whatever exceeds two months can prove to be an intolerable burden even for the most powerful of economies.
Another question is whether the Western economies could reintroduce the quarantine again once it is lifted. Examples from Sweden, and more recently from Norway and Denmark show that countries are getting ready for a lengthy disease yet not for a lengthy quarantine. In these countries, closures affect only as many entities as is necessary for the number of patients not to overstrain the capabilities of the healthcare facilities. This concurrently means that a large proportion of Western countries is essentially likely to be bracing themselves for a scenario where the entire populations are exposed and go through the disease.
The advantage of having an autocratic government at a time of crisis is illusionary
What will happen after the pandemic? Most political analysts delve into the key differences seen between countries in the way their governments deal with the crisis. More often than not, democracy and autocracy receive the largest coverage. Autocracies are said to be dealing with the crisis better.
At first glance, this may seem to be the case. However, the numbers of patients and fatal cases in China alone put veracity of their public information into question. What is happening in Russia is anyone’s guess. We dread to think what is in store for Belarus. We have heard, in another context, that Belarusians are certainly unwilling to harm their own people. This was used as an argument to make us believe that the Astravyets NPP was going to be secure.
We can clearly see how far from harm’s way Lukashenka is, as he is organising an ice hockey competition and encouraging people to drink vodka as an antidote to the coronavirus. Authoritarian regimes do not care about the well-being of their people, but rather focus on their own well-being. Autocrats have long been a hostage of their role in state leadership and their only hope is for themselves to avoid being infected. What about the people? What people? The only criterion of good order is that some portion of the population remains alive to justify the reason for the autocrats to remain in power.
Therefore, in terms of the response to the crisis, I find the distinction between democracies and autocracies insignificant. I prefer to highlight a number of other emerging divides between countries in the midst of a new global war. My key message is that this crisis will specifically highlight the strengths and weaknesses that already existed well before.
Trust vs. Control. The speed of exit from the crisis will largely depend on the ability of the crisis management leadership to make populations agree to adhere to the new restrictions.
Countries where populations normally trust the decision-makers will be more likely to adhere to the quarantine rules compared to those where populist governments lack public trust. Under ordinary conditions, transparent decisions and clear public accountability also lead to public trust. Countries with populist governments will have to compensate for the lack of public trust by high fines, greater policing and increased control.
Sweden is an interesting case to observe. Despite the government’s relaxed approach to quarantine, Swedish citizens began to voluntarily self-isolate and stopped attending bars and mass gatherings. Meanwhile, in Italy, even prison sentences and army patrols are struggling to persuade people to stay at home. This is due to the chronic mistrust with the state institutions anchored in Italy’s history and higher past levels of corruption and shadow economy.
Competence vs. Politicising. In order to counter the spread of the virus, countries that are successful in dealing with the crisis approached renowned experts to help develop resistance plans and determine the extent of the quarantine restrictions.
In some other countries, for political or other reasons, crisis management exclusively remained in the hands of politicians. The United Kingdom is a case in point. The country’s authorities met the first wave of the virus by ambitiously claiming that they would allow time for public immunity, or herd immunity, to develop.
However, a week later, a team led by Neil Fergusson, an epidemiologist from the Imperial College, announced virus development forecasts and quarantine scenarios, according to one of which, unless the state took action, the UK should expect up to 500,000 deaths induced by the virus. The epidemiologist presented the scenario in the UK Parliament, leading to a critical shift in public policy on the very next day. Two days later, it appeared that Boris Johnson was suffering from COVID-19. Unfortunately, Neil Fergusson also contracted the disease.
Some other countries, where science and evidence-based decisions and decision-making based on common sense are not commonplace phenomena, tried to rely on either feeling of politicians or public demand yet again. As a result, decisions were either delayed or not taken at all. In fragile states, quarantine decisions were often taken belatedly, and, once taken, covered too broad a span of economic activity, inevitably leading to a deep economic recession. Take Lebanon, for example.
Ready vs. Caught by Surprise. The argument that nobody could have been prepared for such a disaster was perpetuated on many occasions during this crisis. ‘Black swan’ is a term that refers to events of very low probability with enormous consequences. Those who claim that we could not have been prepared for the crisis are saying that the Coronavirus is a black swan event.
By contrast, Nasim Taleb, who coined the term, claims that the spread of viruses is inevitable in our global world and that we had been warned by both scientists and nature during SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks. It stands to reason that crises generally reveal weaknesses in governance. Some countries, not necessarily well prepared for the virus in question, have dealt better thanks to their better-equipped health sector and greater readiness for crises in general. The situation is well described by and online comment of a certain German citizen, which got viral online. ‘In Germany, we thank medical staff by paying them good salaries,’ he said.
The same is true of protective gear: the countries that are successful in dealing with the virus have protective equipment ready in stock simply because of other possible risks. Take Finland, for example: apart from mandatory military service, the country also has an extremely well-equipped healthcare system. This is due to Finland’s geopolitical situation, but it also clearly contributes to the fight against viruses.
To conclude, the coronavirus pandemic is managed best by governments with the highest pre-crisis levels of public trust, coupled by timely use of competence of crisis management experts and general preparedness: not for this particular virus, but for foreseeable emergencies that normally occur, sooner or later.
Key Lessons for Lithuania
Lithuania’s situation before the crisis is easy to define. I will not go into too much detail here, as most of it is obvious. What interests me more is how Lithuania will change after the crisis is over. The rule of thumb as old as the world is to take advantage of the opportunities created by the crisis. It is still valid today. We have two ways out of the crisis. The first one is to spend the five billion that the government is allowed to borrow, stabilise the situation, and try to return to the pre-crisis level. Another way forward is to identify our greatest weaknesses and emerge better prepared for the future.
Building trust. Transparency issues will have to be addressed sooner or later. The crisis should not make us abandon the principles of state governance altogether. In future, however, it is crucial that, as decision-makers, we provide the public with accurate and verifiable information fast enough, regardless of the emergency strains and time pressure. Involving opponents in decision-making is also called for.
By all means, this will slow the decision-making down somewhat, but decisions will ultimately be taken with less criticism and more trust. Notably, mistrust among the decision-makers may sometimes lead to time losses on a much greater scale, when, in the absence of agreement, no decision is taken at all, as was the case regarding the salaries of the medical staff.
Building authority. The crisis has unveiled our lack of figures of authority. Rather than having politicians comment on everything they observe, I would like to hear competent epidemiologists, virologists, and crisis experts explain how we should proceed and why, and where this will lead us to. We lack competent figures of authority because our universities are impoverished and independent research hubs are nowhere to be seen.
Quite bluntly, we need smart people. And we will need them even more in future. It is therefore crucial that we educate them in our universities, let them work in research hubs, and do our utmost to attract our own kin currently studying in Western countries back to Lithuania. Opportunity does not knock twice that often.
Beefing up the public sector. Raging about the ill-equipped medical staff is no longer an option. Adequate focus on and funding of the healthcare and education sectors are crucial if we all want to get quality service both in crisis and beyond. In geopolitical terms, we are not much different from Finland. With Astravyets on our border, we must be prepared and ready at all times so that a disaster in Astravyets does not send us into a frenetic search for a gas mask out there in the world. Crises are in the pipeline, inevitable like the tyres burning in a tyre factory in Alytus. Therefore, we can no longer afford to say a crisis has taken us by surprise.
Nothing but the pandemic has made us realise that 30,000 children have no computers and teachers are unprepared for teleworking. We can learn from them and not leave our education sector, where it was at the beginning of the current crisis.
Bracing ourselves for, possibly, the second wave. The German and UK experts say that, unless a vaccine is discovered, all those who have no immunity to the virus, which would include almost everyone, are likely to be exposed to undergoing the disease. According to the experts, quarantine is mainly needed for the healthcare system to accommodate the influx of the new patients while continuous testing allows to optimise the distribution of the patient flow and prevent long-term disruptions of the economy.
With this in mind, as we address the current challenges, we need to keep a watchful eye on what may lie in store for us, should the second wave hit the country. Will we be able to go on lockdown again? Will we be in a position to withhold without a lockdown? And if yes, then why have gone on lockdown now? Having acknowledged that we were ill-prepared for the current crisis, let’s not lose sight of another, possibly a larger one, hiding just behind the corner.
Protecting democracy and the rule of law. Losing things we value little happens fast in times of crisis. Things once lost may prove very difficult to recover. Inspired by other autocratic regimes, Hungary is well on track to lose democracy. Let’s not follow suit.
Ultimately, every major global crisis had its own leaders. The US took the lead more often than not: take the First World War, the Second World War, the war on terror in 2001, and the financial crisis in 2008. The US played an indisputable role in bringing the free world and, possibly, the whole world back on track.
Who will lead the world out of the Great Pandemic is not yet fully clear. Maybe, like in the past, the end of the war will be leveraged by the US, or maybe not. China is clearly trying to exploit the situation but is yet unable to prove its trustworthiness. Germany is one of the potential leaders, too. The vast public determination and trust, coupled with a rational approach to the crisis and ways out of it can lead Germany to emerge as one of the major powers that have most efficiently dealt with the crisis. As the first country to have exited the crisis, Germany will be in a position to help others. In fact, Germany is already doing so, as patients from Italy and France are treated in German hospitals.
Whether or not the coronavirus will transform the geopolitical map of the world remains to be seen. However, we can already do all it takes to make sure that Lithuania emerges from the crisis stronger and more resilient to future challenges.