Saturday 10/23/21

Is Finland’s 'trust' factor an edge in the coronavirus battle?

Police-control-alcohol-Helsinki-by-Helsingin-Poliisi
Police officers carrying out an alcohol control among the youth. Photo: Helsinki Police.

You do not need to show your ticket to a ticket checker when entering metro stations in Finland.

It is simply assumed that you have already bought the ticket before you get on the metro.

In other words, Finland trusts you.

It trusts you to abide by laws, to do the right thing in every circumstance, and to maintain honesty in your actions.

The authorities simply believe there is no need to constantly look over the citizens’ shoulder.    

Likewise, Finns also trust their government. They put a high level of trust in their public institutions. They expect that the authorities will do their duties the way they should, and there will be no anomalies in governance.

The link between trust and happiness

This trust is a gem – not only in Finland but also in other Nordic countries. Swedes, Danes, Icelanders and Norwegians also have high levels of trust in their governments and fellow citizens.

According to the UN World Happiness Report 2020, trust is among the key explanations for Nordic happiness.

Finland topped the 2020 happiness index. It also did so in 2019 and 2018. In fact, Finland and other Nordic countries consistently rank high on many global indices, such as education, democracy, women empowerment and prosperity.

Role of trust during crisis

The 2020 happiness report does not specifically say anything about coronavirus. But it says there is evidence that communities and nations with higher levels of social trust and connections are “more resilient in the face of natural disasters and economic crises”.

This bears significance during this coronavirus pandemic.

“More draconian laws are potentially required to contain coronavirus if you have low trust in other people or the authorities,” explains Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, a political science professor at the University of Aarhus.

For example, curfews have been imposed in Italy, France and Spain – countries where social trust is not high. Curfews were enforced to ensure that people would adhere to the necessary guidelines –social distancing and self-isolation– that have been advised by the global health bodies to prevent coronavirus spread.  

Imposing curfews not only depends on trust but also the scale of the crisis in a given country, says Professor Gert.

He says extreme measures can be taken if situation demands. And that is what has happened in Finland.

Unfolding of tougher measures in Finland

Finland confirmed its first coronavirus case –a Chinese traveller from Wuhan– on January 29. At the end of February, there were only three cases.    

In the second week of March, when there were less than 100 cases, Prime Minister Sanna Marin said it was not yet time to impose extensive social distancing measures.

She said Finland was following the “health authorities’ recommendations.”

But as cases soon rose sharply, her government announced new measures, such as cancelling events of 500+ attendees.

On March 14, Asko Järvinen, head of infectious diseases division at Helsinki University Hospital, said he saw no need to declare a state of emergency. There were 225 cases then.

On the same day, Marin tweeted that she had prepared to implement the Emergency Powers Act if necessary.

The following day, Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori said schools and daycares in the capital region would remain open. But some educational institutions elsewhere had already closed on-campus operations at their own discretions by then.

On March 16, a state of emergency was declared amid continuous rise in infections, resulting in numerous restrictions.

Schools, universities, museums, theatres, libraries, hobby facilities, swimming pools and youth clubs were closed. The gathering of more than 10 people was banned.

On March 19, Finland closed its borders to non-essential travels. Ilta-Sanomat reported from Tornio border, calling it a “historic moment.”  

Two days later, the country reported its first coronavirus death.

On March 28, the government cut off Uusimaa region from the rest of the country. Also, the health authorities said the virus had spread to all Finnish regions.

The number of infections had exceeded 1,000 by then.  

Finally, restaurants and bars were closed on April 4, except takeaway sales. The government said they would remain closed at least until May.

Trust remains high regardless

The large-scale restrictions severely hampered daily life in Finland. Some of those were the most drastic that people had ever experienced. Facebook user Martin-Éric Racine wrote, “My social life is 100 percent gone.”

Despite all stern measures taken to contain Covid-19 spread, cases actually soared, like most countries. Until April 6, there were 2,176 cases – 1,362 in Uusimaa – and 27 deaths.    

Nevertheless, the majority people were still satisfied with the government’s actions.

As many as 70% of respondents to a Helsingin Sanomat poll published on April 5 said the restrictions introduced by the government were appropriate.

A little less than 20% said government actions did not go far enough while 10% said they were too stringent.

Respondents also reported solid confidence in national leadership during the pandemic. 84% said they were satisfied with Marin's performance, and 85 percent said the same about President Niinistö.

An April 3 Twitter poll by Foreigner.fi found that 51% of its readers think Finland has prepared well for Covid-19 peak in May.     

Furthermore, based on Eurostat data, OECD’s How’s life? (2015) report said Finland had the second highest level of trust in their political system after Switzerland.

Good business

Professor Gert says if trust is high, the state can save resources when it comes to applying control measures to ensure public compliance with guidelines. He describes trust as a good business.

“Resources saved in control measures can instead be put to use in the fight against coronavirus, in research into vaccines, in funding aid packages for businesses and so on,” explains the professor.

If Finland –and other Nordic countries for that matter– capitalise on this good business and optimise the use of resources accordingly, they will certainly have an advantage over other nations in the fight against what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described as the “worst crisis since World War II.”  

Is Finland’s 'trust' factor an edge in the coronavirus battle?
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