Coming Out Ahead: how some Eastern European nations have got ahead of coronavirus4 min read
As the number of worldwide coronavirus cases nears two million, experts have not shied away from making predictions about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and on society, as a whole. But as the world figures out how to grapple with the pandemic, some countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have set themselves apart for their impressive ability to flatten the curve, propose innovative solutions, and cushion their economy against drastic unemployment and significant decreases in GDP.
Estonia, for instance, may soon be seen as one of the few success stories of pandemic rapid response and mitigation, although it is difficult to define “success” when the full effects of COVID-19 are not yet known. Estonia was well-positioned to respond to the outbreak prior to the country’s government declaring a state of emergency on March 12 because of their heavily digital society, making it easier to serve citizens through the existence of effective e-services, and their negligible public debt. Estonia has also seized upon the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to foster greater innovation, improve their soft power through branding, and demonstrate the value of government openness to technological integration.
Only hours after Estonia started shuttering schools and businesses, the country’s dynamic tech community came together to launch “Hack the Crisis.” Not only did the hackathon produce several creative solutions, from a platform for temporary workforce exchange to a medical volunteer management database, it also inspired other countries to start their own versions (such as in Sweden and Finland). The Estonian government rallied quickly to devote resources and energy to fighting coronavirus and its effects: new investments are pouring into telemedicine companies and the country welcomed a new chat bot to provide critical public health updates and fight disinformation. By extending its digital education tools to countries in need of remote learning resources and infrastructure, Estonia is drawing positive attention from European leaders as well as building political capital.
It is important to acknowledge that Estonia has seen its fair share of coronavirus cases and that the country is not immune to the suffering and financial damage wrought by the virus. There is also reasonable fear that the emergency measures put in place by the government, such as closing down borders, may be used as a justification for future xenophobic policies and actions by the far-right government party, EKRE. However, the country maintains low levels of panic relative to the rest of Europe and the government has done a fair job in securing personal protective equipment for the population. The small country of one million people has demonstrated its leadership potential to the European community through tech diplomacy and crisis management.
While Estonia may be a more anticipated victor of COVID-19 chaos, there are a few other countries that have experienced small wins in the time of corona. In Poland, for example, vending machines selling face masks recently started appearing on the streets of Warsaw and Krakow, leading to praise from local citizens. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that modest inventions like the vending machines, although creative, will ultimately help the people of Poland overcome their battered healthcare system.
Georgia, another country struggling with an inefficient healthcare system, has actually been applauded for its response to the coronavirus, including by the US Ambassador, who commended the country’s ability to stabilize the infection spread rate and raise public awareness. In addition to being one of the first Eurasian countries to suspend flights from countries with outbreaks, Georgia imposed an overnight curfew, prohibited large gatherings, and set up effective screening practices and checkpoints. The government’s admirable efforts have led to claims that Georgia has handled the pandemic much better than its wealthier European counterparts, like the Netherlands.
Not only has Georgia seen very few cases compared to their neighbors, but public confidence in the government has risen as the country put medical professionals in charge of the response to the pandemic. Furthermore, COVID-19 has resulted in extensive acclaim for the Georgia-based Lugar Research Center, which has managed to test hundreds of samples of the virus and turn results around in under 24 hours. The lab, previously the target of Russian propaganda attacks, has enjoyed a spike in credibility and authority during the crisis, which may lend itself well to attracting more funding for research and development in the Caucuses.
It is difficult to predict how long the threat of COVID-19 will endure, a fearful reality for countries that are struggling to keep up with the pace and challenges of the virus. Just as there are lessons to be learned from many of the inept governments written about daily in the news, there are even more lessons to be learned from countries that are starting to get things right.