Mika Ihamuotila was in charge of one of Finland’s biggest banks when he took a month off work to learn what to do in the event of a national crisis, such as a war, cyber attack or even a pandemic.
He and 40 other people — chief executives, MPs, ministers, military officers, senior journalists and civil servants — had been selected to participate in Finland’s National Defence Course.
“It meant that leading Finns get the opportunity to go through different parts of society — logistics, food, energy, banking payments, defence, and so on — and get a picture of how things work in crisis,” said Mr Ihamuotila, now the chairman of fashion brand Marimekko, of the training he attended almost two decades ago.
“I don’t think such a course exists anywhere else. My guess would be that Finland is better prepared for coronavirus due to this.”
While Nordic and Baltic nations — ever aware of a threat from nearby Russia — have long involved their citizens in contingency planning, western European countries such as France and Britain have traditionally kept such strategy at arm’s length from the public. As governments across the world fight the coronavirus pandemic with lockdowns, social-distancing and orders for the sick to self-isolate, even those which have no history of civil defence are having to engage their citizens in collective action against contagion.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, has urged Britons to “look out for each other and commit wholeheartedly to a national effort”. “We are at war,” French president Emmanuel Macron told the nation this week. “Everyone needs to get together on one single objective: slow down the spread of the epidemic.”
There has been some panic buying in Nordic countries and they share wider concerns about broadband provision with many people working from home. Still their civic engagement prior to the crisis looks prescient.
Two years ago, the Swedish authorities were derided for their decision to distribute a pamphlet to all 4.7m households in the country telling them how to behave in case of a war, cyber attack or natural disaster. “If crisis or war comes” contains lists of what foods to store at home, potatoes, long-life bread, pre-cooked lentils, and “blueberry and rosehip soup”. It also advises on where to find trusted sources of news and how to spot disinformation.
Svante Werger, senior adviser at Sweden’s civil contingencies agency, the MSB, said the decision to educate the public was a revival of Sweden’s cold war strategy, which had lapsed as tensions between Russia and the west eased in the early 1990s. “[Government officials] felt like individuals were taking too much for granted,” he said. “The electricity always works, that there’s money in cash machines or on our credit cards, that we can always buy food at our local supermarket, that the water in our kitchen is clean . . . we are so used to that, that we have no margins if that should fail.”
Sweden’s resilience philosophy aims to encourage healthy and able citizens to be self-reliant so the government can focus on the most vulnerable, he added. “We see the individual a resource in a society’s preparedness efforts, and not as an object or a problem,” he said. He believes “If crisis or war comes” has reduced panic among Swedes now considering potential food shortages and virus-related disinformation campaigns.
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Finland has stepped up its efforts in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It reviewed all security laws and made the necessary tweaks to ensure they were kept up to date, including many that have relevance for the coronavirus outbreak. It continued organising regular meetings between competitors in key sectors such as food and energy to ensure they could cope in times of crisis. In response to a survey eighteen months ago, 82 per cent of the Finnish population responded that they were poised to survive for three days with essential equipment and food.
“It creates this network . . . now where you fit in,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “Is this easier when it’s a smaller country? Yes. Is there a reason why a middle-sized or larger country can’t do it? No,” he said.
Increasingly, there are calls for western European countries to reconsider their approach. The increase in hybrid warfare, involving state-sponsored cyber attacks, has put all Nato countries — not just Nordic countries — on the virtual front line. James Arbuthnot, a former UK defence minister, argues that a move to more active resilience against both hostile states and natural crises such as coronavirus are long overdue.
“The idea that the British public can’t be trusted with the truth is, and always was, total nonsense,” he said, adding that recent messages out from the UK prime minister represent a “profound change” from the way that government has treated the population in the past.
“Suddenly the government is saying, you need to look out for yourselves and you need to look out for each other as we come together as a nation,” Lord Arbuthnot said. “Maybe we’ll be able to look back on the coronavirus episode as the time when the UK began to recognise throughout the country its degree of personal and individual responsibility — to each other and to ourselves.”