Letter from Tallinn: inside the Baltic bubble9 min read

 In Blog, COVID-19, Culture, Eastern Europe
On 14 May of this year, amidst border closures and new world of both self and geographic isolation, the Baltic States took the then-unprecedented step of re-opening their borders, creating the first Covid ‘travel bubble’. In doing so they broke the trend of ‘pandemic nationalism’ and embraced the kind of mutual trust and cooperation that has been the bedrock of the European project.

In early July of this year, my new fiancé and I departed for his homeland of Estonia to spend time with his family and introduce me to the future in-laws. As a keen traveller, the possibility of freedom both within Estonia and to travel to neighbouring countries was an untold thrill after months of isolation at home, despite the terrifying prospect of impressing his family.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, unlike the UK and many other countries, publish a weekly list of countries that require two-weeks isolation, are banned from arrival or indeed are quarantine free. This list is updated every Friday and is based around the clear figure of 16 per 100,000 (for Estonia); any higher you quarantine, any lower you don’t. This allows you to track your destination’s infection trend and judge if travel is sensible, something from which the rather haphazard and chaotic UK approach could learn.

Compared to the fraught, chaotic and tense atmosphere at home, arrival into the bubble couldn’t have been more different. We were prepared for a two-week quarantine upon arrival, however, the day before we were due to fly the UK’s infection rate dropped below the all-important 16 per 100,000, meaning we were free to explore immediately, although we took it upon ourselves to remain socially distanced for the first week, just to be cautious.

Stepping out into Tallinn was like stepping into another world. Whilst I have lived in Estonia previously nothing quite prepared me for what greeted us… complete normality. No masks, no rules (at least obvious to the casual observer), life was just as it had been the last time I had left. Now it is worth saying that Estonians are quite introverted by nature and so social distancing was perhaps easier for them than other cultures, indeed many joked that they were relieved when the two meters distancing rule was revoked that they could return to being five meters apart! So perhaps changes in people’s behaviour were less immediately apparent.

The foreignising of risk

Compared to its neighbours, Estonia had been badly affected. In particular and despite its remote location and rural nature, the island of Saaremaa had become an epicentre of infection with approximately 40% of residents in its capital city Kuressaere infected following the visit of an Italian volleyball team.

By July, however, this was seemingly a distant memory, with only a few (slightly concerned) jokes about us planning to visit ‘Corona Island’ when we announced a trip to Saaremaa. The threat of the virus moved to the past or displaced to abroad, or at least as far as Saaremaa.

In no part of the country was there any sign that we were in a pandemic. Even Saaremaa was very much open for business, only the omnipresent and diligently used hand sanitisers gave any sign of change. No sense of the drama and loss that had unfolded, just a sense of positive pragmatism. From the perspective of someone from a country hit as hard as the UK, it was both wonderful to feel some semblance of normality, but also disconcerting knowing it might not last.

However, when outbreaks came, they were thankfully small and quickly contained: a nightclub in Tartu, a bar in Riga (yes, amazingly nightclubs were actually open). However, they did see a gradual return to some precautions, such a hastily re-erected screens on shop counters. Watching these events unfold and comparing them to rates in the UK it almost seemed comical – restrictions in Latvia re-introduced over a small handful of cases when the UK could only dream of under 100 per day. Where restrictions existed, they were often technical or dependent on self-regulation rather than heavy-handedness. For example, taking the ferry to Finland was permitted for Estonian citizens and residents (me) but not other citizens who might not have to quarantine in Estonia but would in Finland. In reality, there were no checks, with a mutual sense of trust in both countries thanks to the application of rules and citizens’ self-regulation.

A budget-friendly summer

Finland, by July a de-facto member of the Baltic bubble, was a subtly different experience. Whilst still very much more normal than the UK, there were more signs of a proactive stance to prevent outbreaks. Breakfast times in hotels were recorded and limited, screens in place to protect hotel and restaurant staff. However, as with Tallinn and Riga, the biggest difference was the almost total absence of tourists. Usually crowded hotspots were noticeably quieter, with locals replacing backpackers and cruise passengers at the harbourside restaurants.

In Tallinn, the usual tourist-trap prices of the Townhall square had dropped, allowing local families to dine at restaurants usually reserved for the flush or perhaps fiscally irresponsible foreigner. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were exploring their own and each others’ countries, unusual in recent times when the allure of the more exotic has tempted them to further afield. However, this did come with an economic downside; whilst beneficial for our wallet, it was sad to see the art and craft shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes having to noticeably drop prices to entice local budgets. Our Riga hotel, normally one of the more sought after in the old town, had slashed prices and was still eerily quiet. For an economy used to a regular supply of foreign tourists, this was a damaging summer, though thankfully not as bad as for countries such as Spain, due to the much shorter lockdown period.

However, toward the end of our stay in Estonia and our progress on to Latvia and Lithuania, the trust had begun to be tested and caution replaced with lapses of judgment and government actions reflecting a sense of being seen to be doing things, rather than logical steps to prevent the virus. The outbreak in Tartu was linked to an individual who had symptoms of the virus but still felt relaxed enough to go out clubbing. Latvia’s tracing forms, whilst compulsory to fill in, were neither checked nor collected at the border. The sign that masks were compulsory on the bus from Pärnu to Riga was ignored by both the driver and passengers, in fact, we were viewed with much amusement for wearing them. Hubris or a measured approach in a low-risk area, it was difficult to tell.

The bus from Riga to Vilnius was full of Ukrainians and Belarussians, returning home before another round of border closures, but focused more on the important business of sharing out travel food, debating the plotline of telenovelas or more seriously, the current political situations in their respective countries. Covid once again moved to the back page, with everyday life and more pressing political concerns taking precedence. On our arrival to Vilnius, things took a rather comical turn when the announcement went out that passengers had to put on their masks to depart the bus. Lithuania had implemented a rule a few days earlier that face masks were to be compulsory on public transport and enclosed public spaces, something Latvia and Estonia had yet to do. The bus company, keen not to get fined, ensured we were all masked-up despite almost no one wearing one for the journey from Riga.

The gradual return of restrictions

In Lithuania, Covid came back into our everyday existence; masks were commonplace even if viewed somewhat disparagingly (more on that shortly) and both infection rates and testing/quarantining were far more evident. Lithuania in fact has one of the highest testing rates per capita anywhere in Europe, reflected in a certain degree of testing fatigue amongst our friends in Vilnius. Our host was just celebrating a negative test result, having been warned of a potential exposure two weeks earlier, most people we met seemingly having been tested at least once.

Negative test results were viewed positively, but only from the perspective of quarantine inhibiting daily life. Similar to much of our experience in Estonia, the threat of Covid itself was dismissed as being minor or just another health issue that you might be unlucky enough to fall foul of and shouldn’t prevent everyday life. Certainly, it was refreshing to experience a more positive or pragmatic outlook after the nihilism often experienced in the UK.

Mask regulations in restaurants were similarly viewed with a degree of cynical pragmatism, with waiting staff kindly informing you both of the new regulations, but also that you would be exempt as soon as you order a drink – a great sales pitch, though rather pointing out the potential fruitlessness of such legislation.

It would be untrue to say that this was an all prevailing viewpoint, many still frightened by the threat of Covid remained isolated, despite extremely low infection rates. Others, such as my in-laws were genuinely concerned at our travels to parts of the country and abroad which had previously been hot spots, tracking news headlines for new outbreaks. Understandably so, given the risks to them. In Lithuania, my friend warned us that people might be worried hearing foreigners speaking, in a time of limited tourism and as previously mentioned the externalisation of risk.

In our last few days in the Baltic bubble, the mood had definitely shifted, the UK and much of western Europe was once again added to the quarantine list. In Latvia there was even talk of adding their fellow bubble nationals. Latvia’s much lower infection rate was viewed with a deal of suspicion in both Estonia and Lithuania, with gentle suggestions in conversation that records might not reflect reality. Whatever the truth, we were grateful to cross the border back into Latvia for our flight onwards without a hitch, completing our summer in a brief oasis of normalcy before the madness of Covid returned again.

At the time of writing the borders remain open, but despite a gradual raising of the threshold at which people are expected to quarantine, restrictions have come into place across the bubble. As with the rest of the world, the Baltic Bubble is having to retreat and adapt in face of a new wave of cases. The Baltic Bubble may have burst for now, but the precedent it set will hopefully prevent the same wide-spread closure of borders, so damaging for lives and economies so used to open frontiers as the world seeks a more practical approach to the pandemic.

Featured image: The busiest passenger ferry route in the world, ghostly quiet (Helsinki) / Owen Howells
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