Finland has fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any of its rival EU members, which has apparently qualified the country’s young prime minister, Sanna Marin, to lecture her peers about the dangers of right-wing populism as Brussels clashes with Poland and Hungary over “rule of law” requirements, delaying desperately needed COVID aid.
Marin explained that citizens will ultimately blame the government for imposing all of these COVID-19-inspired restrictions on movement and business, some of which have helped destroy businesses and careers, leaving a swath of pain and misery, aggravated by worsening drug and alcohol abuse.
Finland is the only EU member not to see a resurgence of the virus over the past few months; its average rate of about 40 daily cases per million people has endured for months. Austria’s rate is 20x that. The Czech Republic’s rate is 15x, while Sweden’s rate is 10x.
So, what should European governments do? Marin seems to think that agreeing to a common EU-wide strategy would help. Or at the very least, she believes the strategy would help keep Finland safe, if more European states signed on.
“This will cause protests more and more, and it’s a breeding ground for populist movements across Europe. When you’re closing an economy and people’s workplaces, it will cause political instability. Populists come with easy answers to difficult problems, but their solutions are rarely the right ones,” she added.
The common strategy envisioned by Marin would include more comprehensive testing and tracing. More than half of Finland’s population is using a government testing and tracing app, which Marin has credited for helping keep infection rates low. However, outside Finland, contact tracing efforts around the world have largely met with mixed results.
She also pitched more travel restrictions, arguing that “we all need to be successful to be safe”.
“This is not a competition. We all need to be successful to be safe…In Finland, the situation is more stable, but still we are also more at risk if the virus spreads in other countries.”
Whatever benefit populist parties might receive from the pandemic, nothing has happened yet. But Marin believes that the more frustrated the public becomes, the more people will turn toward right-wing populists who have advocated a less restrictive approach focused on the most vulnerable.
Finland has one of the most restrictive policies in Europe governing when travelers must enter quarantine, although adherence during that period is mostly self-policed. While Finland’s economy has avoided the massive blowback experienced by its neighbors, Marin insisted that people always need someone or something to blame for their problems.
“I think that the situation might get even worse and people might get even more tired. The situation has got worse in the autumn. People often want to find someone to blame and often the easiest ones to blame are the governments and politicians.”
Importantly, Marin said she saw no distinction between protecting individual health and protecting the economy, and that testing – not travel restrictions – is really the key to suppression.
“Testing is key – we need to test people more. This is the key to maintaining the situation under control. We don’t want to stop people from traveling, we want to stop the virus from spreading.”
That almost sounds like something Anders Tegnell, the architect of Sweden’s no-lockdown approach, might say.